Left 4 Dead
Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer: Valve Software
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 11/17/08
Zombies are great, first person shooters are good, so zombie-filled first person shooters are, theoretically, fabulous. Zombies have made other games fantastic, from the Resident Evil and House of the Dead games to Dead Rising to Darkstalkers (who doesn’t love Lord Raptor?) and beyond, so it stands to reason that a zombie-themed FPS would be absolutely awesome. Of course, this is hardly the case; while we’ve had some fantastic on-rails zombie-themed shooters, as noted above, zombie-based FPS titles are often not very good, as games like Resident Evil Survivor and Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green have shown us. Left 4 Dead has pretty much changed that negative stigma, however, as the folks at Valve have (unsurprisingly) turned out a fun, frantic, fast-paced first person shooter that’s great fun for those of us who have friends who ALSO like shooting the undead in the face. It isn’t quite the awesome product it was originally expected to be, of course, and your enjoyment of the game will largely depend upon your interest in what the game does, and how it does it, but overall, it makes a strong case for your ownership that may be hard to ignore.
Astonishingly, there is something of a story concept to Left 4 Dead, though it’s something of a Dawn of the Dead-lite; the four heroes are among the only survivors of a zombie apocalypse, the origins of which are never explained, and it falls to them to fight their way through the oncoming horde of the dead and escape by any means necessary. The kick of the concept is two-fold: first, the game presents itself as a series of FILMS starring the characters instead of as the story of the characters, which is rather interesting way of doing things that not too many games have done that works in the game’s favor here, and second, each of the missions are largely self-contained, in that they basically amount to dumping you somewhere trying to survive and end with your team escaping from their impending demise by some sort of act of providence (usually involving the military saving their asses), meaning that each story is self-contained and amounts to “How will they survive HERE?”Â instead of being one long, arching storyline, thus allowing everything to be self-contained instead of forcing the player to play everything in order to “get it”Â. There’s little actual PLOT to the game, but the writing of the characters and their actions and reactions to things are more than sufficient to get across the overall point of the experience well, and the introduction cinematic not only sets the tone of the experience nicely, but also contains a surprisingly hilarious dialogue sequence that pretty much sells the overall writing of the game on its own. Further, it’s also nice to see an introductory sequence that actually lets you know everything you SHOULD know from the get-go: giant monsters are bad, crying women are worse, car alarms ruin your day, and your whole experience will be about surviving from one safe-house to the next. Points across the board to the actual presentation of the story; it’s minimal, but what it does works very well, and it’s hard to argue with the way the game does things, if only because it’s quite powerful. To prove that point, enjoy this:
Visually, Left 4 Dead is running off of the same engine of Half-Life 2, and while it’s not packing the visual power it was a few years ago, it can still make some very attractive setpieces and work with them. The character animations are all very solid across the board, and the various zombies you meet throughout the game all look different enough that you don’t feel like you’re killing the same zombie over and over again. The environments are also very impressive, and all appropriately communicate the sense of dread the game requires in order to feel as it does; from hulked out cities to ruined hospitals and airports to desolate forests and beyond, the visuals really MAKE the experience feel exactly as it should. Ditto the audio; the music is incredibly fitting and works well at creating the appropriate ambience (whether it be the adrenaline rush of fighting the undead or the terror of being alone in darkness), and the various sound effects, from the crying of Witches to the ambient noises of things dying and such, all help to keep the experience feeling JUST right. The voice acting from the survivors also deserves some special praise, since these are the four most important characters in the game, and their voice-over work is exceptional. The voices and tones from the characters as they deliver their lines tell us as much as their appearances, and let the player know appropriately what sort of people these characters are, allowing the player to more readily identify with someone who, in all other respects, is little more than an avatar we kill things with, and to do so much with so little is, again, impressive.
The gameplay of Left 4 Dead is strictly standard FPS fare in most respects; the left stick moves, the right stick aims, the triggers fire your guns and initiate melee attacks to knock enemies away, jumping and ducking are mapped to simple to access control points, and reloading is as simple as pressing a button, as you’d expect. You’re given a flashlight and grenades in addition to your normal ballistic weaponry, and assuming your survivor has access to these things, you can switch between explosives, pistols (which have infinite ammo) and heavier weaponry (machine guns, shotguns, and a sniper rifle, all of which have limited ammo but pack a heavier punch) at the touch of a button, again, making things simple to work with and play. For most folks, this is all old hat, though Left 4 Dead does offer a couple of additional tools to work with that make it a little more interesting than one might think at first. For one, you can carry around healing items to use at any time in the field, on yourself or others, in the form of both Health Kits (which heal you for real) and Painkillers (which simulate being healed but deteriorate as time goes on); on one hand, this allows you to patch up yourself or teammates as you go, but on the other, this puts a premium on healing, since it rarely turns up as you go. For another, the game levels are broken up into stages for you to progress through, which allow you to load up on gear as needed; at the beginning of each stage, you’ll find ammo, weapons and healing items to use, to replenish your supplies, allowing you a clean start at the beginning of each stage, which will inevitably be ruined sometime before you reach the next one.
The big selling point of Left 4 Dead, however, is the team aspect; no matter what mode you play through the game in, you’ll be on a team with SOMEONE, be they the CPU or another person. Now, the CPU allies, for what it’s worth, aren’t complete boobs (though they’re not too swift about using explosives), and if you want to play the game alone you certainly can, but the fun of the game, from the beginning to the end, comes from gathering up three friends and taking it to the CPU in four-player co-op, and this is, without a doubt, completely fantastic. The experience itself becomes somewhat more than one would expect it to be with the addition of other players; aside from the obvious team tactics and customized squad outfitting (IE who carries what), the game simply feels more team-oriented. Enemies will pin down allies, requiring another player to come save them, or allies will fall in battle and will need reviving or patching up or what have you, and at these times the team dynamic of the game becomes more interesting than one might think, simply BECAUSE the game makes the experience about not JUST killing everything you see, but also about keeping your buddies alive. You can make it through plenty of FPS titles alone, but in Left 4 Dead if everyone but you dies, you might as well hang it up. KEEPING allies alive and helping buddies out is integral to the process, and with a full team of other players, that becomes a lot more apparent… especially if you’re all willing to completely trash talk the zombies, of course.
It’s also worth noting that the game itself is essentially DESIGNED for multiplayer, meaning that you’ll play the same missions in solo and multiplay, which makes the experience more focused towards multiple players (since the whole game is specifically designed to work with four players at a time). Aside from playing through the campaign alone or with friends and strangers, there’s also the Versus mode, which (in an interesting twist) puts you in control of either the human survivors who are trying to escape or special classes of undead, who are trying to kill the survivors. Indeed, the whole point and design of Left 4 Dead is to accentuate the multiplayer components of the experience, and frankly, the game is all the better for it; with split-screen multiplay, online co-op and online versus that requires you to unlock nothing and allows you to play what you want, WHEN you want, the game is a fantastic example of fabulous multiplayer gaming, and combine THAT with the fact that the experience is fast-paced and emulates the concept of a zombie holocaust perfectly and, well, Left 4 Dead is outstanding fun for FPS and horror fans alike.
Unfortunately, it’s a bit limited considering its price point. See, while Left 4 Dead is a fantastic and enjoyable multiplayer shooter, plenty of other games are as well, and while they cost the same as this title, they ALSO offer things like “variety”Â and “single player campaigns that are noticeably different from the multiplayer campaign”Â. Left 4 Dead does not do this even a little bit; while everything LOOKS different, it’s all kind of similar in a lot of unfortunate respects, and while that ultimately means the experience is very fair and streamlined, it ALSO means you’ll see the whole game in about four hours. The four characters, while visually and aurally different, are functionally identical; no one has any interesting skills that make them useful or give them a moment to shine (say, the ability to pick locked doors or something) which, aside from being a missed opportunity for dramatic scenes, also leaves the characters feeling somewhat generic. Ditto the weapons selection; there are a whopping six guns in the game (pistols, two shotguns, two machine guns, and a sniper rifle), and of those, two are merely upgrades of crappier weapons. It makes sense to do things in this fashion (start the player with crap and upgrade them around the time the game is going to get rougher), but some additional variety would have improved the game experience significantly, doubly so considering that the sniper rifle, while good to see, isn’t terribly useful in a game where you’re being mobbed by giant monsters and hordes of running killers. You can blow through all four stages in less than four hours, and while the upgraded difficulties are nice, as is the versus mode, you can only play versus through two maps, and upgrading the difficulty only increases the challenge, not the variety.
It’s not that Left 4 Dead is in any way BAD, mind you, so much as it’s just not really diverse enough to sell itself to someone who’s been jamming on Gears of War 2 or The Orange Box. Like those games, Left 4 Dead features strong visuals, fantastic presentation, and amazingly fun multiplayer modes that will keep the game interesting for those with friends who enjoy the game as much as you do. Frankly, this is also one of the few zombie-themed FPS titles that gets the concept right, and that counts for a lot for fans of that particular horror concept. However, what it has in style, it lacks in substance; between only offering four missions, four functionally identical characters, six guns and two bombs, the only place where there’s any significant variety is in versus play, and only for those who play as the zombies, and outside of multiplayer play, there’s no point to the game, as the single player mode just isn’t nearly as fun. Taken as a fun zombie-filled multiplayer experience, Left 4 Dead might well be worth picking up, if only because few games do what it does, but for those looking for more meat and less “braaaaaaiiins”Â, it might be best to wait for a price drop; fans of the genre will love it a lot, but how much they love it will depend entirely upon if it’s worth what they paid for it.
The Scores: Story: GOOD
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE Final Score: GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary: Left 4 Dead does a lot of things right that make it worth checking out. It’s aesthetically pleasing, works the concept of the “post-apocalyptic zombie flick”Â to maximum effect, plays great, and offers lots of fun for multiple players, online or off. As a first-person shooter, it’s enjoyable, as a multiplayer game, it’s good times, and as a zombie-based horror-themed game, it does everything it needs to do to get itself over well. However, it’s also limited in size and scope; between a lack of character variety, a lack of playable levels, a lack of enemies, and a lack of weapons, the only reason to keep coming back IS the multiplayer, as you’ll see everything the game has to offer in a few hours. If you’re a fan of playing online with friends or online FPS titles in general, Left 4 Dead is fabulous, but if you’re looking for substance over style, it might be worth renting first to see if it has enough to keep you coming back.
Mark B. is the Senior Editor at Diehard GameFAN, mostly because he’s been on staff for a decade. He has previously written for 411Games, InsidePulse Games, Not a True Ending, Retrograding and Beyond the Threshold, and he maintains multiple infrequent columns, as well as a Hitbox stream on Saturdays. You can check out his archives and non-game related work over at markbwriting.com, and follow him on Twitter at MarkBWriting or Facebook at MarkBWriting. (Special thanks to J. Rose for the artwork.)