Set during the aftermath of an apocalyptic pandemic, this game has you follow the story of a small group of survivors as they try to make their way out of Pennsylvania in order to find safety and protection from the infected, fighting them off along the way. Will you make it out alive, or will you be… Left 4 Dead?
Left 4 Dead is a first-person shooter based on the popular zombie scenario that everyone is familiar with. You (and up to three other players) take control over one of four survivors; Bill the Vietnam veteran, Francis the loud-mouthed biker, Louis the office worker, and Zoey the college drop-out. As the survivors, your goal is simple: make it from point A to point B as soon as you can while protecting yourself and the rest of your team from the infected, going through a number of safe-houses as you progress through each campaign and using a handful of weapons along the way.
One of the most notable features players will notice right off the bat when they first start going through the menus to select the level is how the game seems to portray each campaign with a movie poster. To further portray each campaign as a set of movies, Valve also introduced a rather interesting AI system that they’ve referred to as “the director”, which will be covered later in this review.
The game mostly focuses on cooperation and teamwork in order to survive and make it through each campaign, which eschews some of the conventional "realism" that’s present in other FPS games. For example, players that work together are essentially rewarded by making it through certain scenarios and sometimes even finding helpful items a bit more frequently, while players that choose to abandon their team and go solo usually end up getting killed by the infected and waiting to respawn; likewise, having a friend use their first-aid kit on you will restore more health than if you use your own first-aid kit instead.
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The pick-up and respawn systems are also interestingly different. Whenever a player is downed, they can be helped back up by a teammate to give them another chance to finish the campaign with the rest of the group. However, this only works so many times; if you are downed twice and don’t have a first-aid kit that you can use, getting downed a third time will kill you. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of the game yet, though; players can be respawned inside of a closet if they die, but another player must let them out before they can rejoin the rest of the group.
The gameplay itself is rather straight-forward and easy to pick up for those who are familiar with the FPS genre in general, and the aspect of teamwork will help the player get through each campaign; however, to help compensate for what may be considered a game that’s too easy when using teamwork, the director will determine whether or not to do various different things that will either help or hinder the players (such as providing more health kits or spawning more infected for the players to fight), with all decisions being based on the actions the group makes throughout the campaign. It also has a tendency of changing what elements in the game can cause certain panic events (referred to as crescendos) to happen, which makes it so that no single play-through is ever the same as the previous one before it. This helps to keep the gameplay from getting stale.
The sounds you hear throughout the game also help with the ambiance; you hear all sorts of sounds depending on your location, such as voices and gunfire in the distance while in a city level, or even something as minor as an animal running through the bushes out in the forest levels. The general atmosphere of each campaign’s environment also helps to put the mood in place: with cities that have abandoned vehicles and open streets, as well as forests or farmland that seem quiet one moment and are bustling with activity the next, you’ll definitely be keeping your guard up the entire time. The musical score they made for this game, although looped quite a bit throughout the campaigns, also helps to give off that feeling of unease as you travel from one location to another.
"Let's go to the farm, they said. It'll be relaxing, they said!"
However, I do have to take note of a few things that can be seen as potential drawbacks for the game. Although this game is great, it has a few things that could do with some improvement or fixing; exploits, and a lack of modding support are just a couple that I can pinpoint immediately off the top of my head.
There are a few bugs throughout the game that can cause some serious problems. One bug in particular (which still doesn’t seem to have been completely fixed) involves the game’s physics system, where you can actually push another player out of the playable areas of the game and kill them. It’s not exactly game breaking, but it’s definitely a flaw that can be problematic on occasion. The AI system has also shown a few problems as well, which some people have found to be useful in some instances. One of the most notable bugs I’ve personally encountered is the common infected not actually noticing the players when they are literally right in front of them; it’s pretty easy to tell that the infected aren’t supposed to be blind to the players unless they are hiding, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t see you when you’re standing in front of them. The director AI also seems to be bugged on occasion, not initiating certain crescendo events when they are triggered by the players or randomly triggering them without cause; this sometimes works to the advantage of the players, but it’s something that has been exploited quite a few times in the past.
The weaponry and equipment you can use in this game is limited; they do have their uses, but it seems like there would be instances where certain equipment that would be necessary to continue either only spawns enough for one player or doesn’t spawn at all. As you can imagine, this would be problematic for anyone who’s low on ammo or in need of a health pack. Coupled with the difficulty level of the game, this can be even more of an issue. Although I personally had no problems with the game’s difficulty, many people have complained in the past (and still complain even now) that Left 4 Dead’s difficulty seems to be a bit higher than expected for each level of difficulty provided. This may be due in part to the lack of weapons and equipment in some instances or even the AI for the director just deciding to act up, but one thing is certain; a lot of people don’t care for the difficulty being the way it is most of the time. Fortunately, Valve has responded by tweaking the difficulty a bit to be a bit easier with the given circumstances, but the other factors still play a part in the difficulty of the game.
The overall length of the game is also rather short; even with six campaigns, each campaign is roughly an hour’s worth of time, give or take a few minutes’ worth of time to look around for ammo, health, or other helpful items. Fortunately, there is some level of customization for the game that at least allows for custom campaigns. However, this is as far as customization goes without doing any extensive editing. Although there are custom skins available for this game as well, you can only add them by editing a certain .VPK file; this isn’t very effective, considering that each update would break the skins and require the player to edit the file again.
Overall, Left 4 Dead is definitely a game worth playing if you want to have some fun with your friends, even with its flaws. The only things that can be suggested are that you be patient and actually work together in the game, as well as look into playing custom campaigns. The ambience of the game definitely helps to keep the mood that Valve was going for, and the game is pretty fun when you can get together with a few friends to play it. Just try not to get angry with the game when the director decides to act up.