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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Game Review: Left 4 Dead

If you think about it, the zombie survival genre has a lot in common with first-person shooters (FPS). Granted, it didn't start out that way – Night of the Living Dead was more focused on the survival than the zombies, and with slow-moving zombies our protagonists could run right past the hordes of undead. With fast zombies all the rage, most prominently on display in the remake of Dawn of the Dead, the distinction between zombies and hordes of mooks is even less apparent. Its surprising it took this long for someone to finally make a FPS that's just about killing zombies
"I'll see peace back on Earth if I gotta murder every one of these bastards with my bare g-ddamn hands!"--Bill
Left 4 Dead takes the FPS genre one step further and makes it a four-player team (the "4" in the title is no accident) that can be played co-op, online, or even multiplayer teams of four survivors vs. four player-controlled zombies. Divided into chapters and presented like a movie, the action starts immediately with four zombie survival stereotypes: the combat-weary war veteran (Bill, voiced by Jim French), the white collar black guy (Louis, voiced by Earl Alexander), the tough-as-nails biker dude (Francis, voiced by Vince Valensuela), and the hot chick (Zoey, voiced by Jen Taylor). Their goal is simply to survive by fighting their way through wave after wave of zombies, with the occasional super-zombie thrown in to spice things up.

That's it. That's all there is to Left 4 Dead.

And yet that simple summary doesn't do the game justice. Just as Gears of War revolutionized how cover and reloading was handled in FPS, Left 4 Dead is first and foremost a perfected multiplayer experience.
"Look on the bright side; even if you guys die, I'll still be really handsome!"--Francis
Friends can take over one of the four characters at any time, and if they're idle too long, the computer takes over. Players vote on everything, including when to skip boring sequences like summaries. And yet combat summaries are there if the group is so inclined, ranging from headshots to number of zombies killed to the amount of damage taken.

For the players who are fond of running off and being a hero, Left 4 Dead forces group teamwork: Smoker and Hunter zombies pick off loners and are a death sentence for the victim unless comrades come to his aid. Idiots who run off by themselves are dead meat. Witch zombies, which attack whomever disturbs them, forces the team to stop and think about what they shoot. Even death isn't permanent – players reappear in safe houses as survivors (who just happen to be exact copies of the original cast) so that everyone can get back to doing what they love most: killing the killed.

Left 4 Dead is light on back-story, but that's not important to the multiplayer genre either. There's enough graffiti on the walls to figure out what happened, which in case you didn't guess already, involves people getting infected and becoming zombies. What makes Left 4 Dead even sweeter is how it embraces all its zombie tropes, from the levels (escape from a hospital, from a cabin in the woods, from the top of a skyscraper) to the characters (are all reminiscent of zombie movie tropes), to little touches like how the perspective shifts to black and white when a character is about to die – shades of Night of the Living Dead
"Mister, if one of us gets killed out here, I'm gonna shoot my way in there and beat you to death with my gun!"--Louis
Even the zombies themselves behave like bad actors. Although they can move fast when they sense prey, they die in all kinds of glorious and inglorious ways, stumbling as they lose unlife and limb. They can't even open doors, instead tearing at it with their bare hands.

The voice acting is superb, including the refreshingly confident yet feminine voice of Cortana from Halo 3, Jen Taylor. The dialogue is hilarious – Zoey's rant about "fast-moving zombies" is priceless. And there's even a Game Master-like AI Director who determines when and how to ramp up the tension against the players, precipitated by the appropriate horror-style music.

Left 4 Dead is so good that it's replaced my weekly Gears of War 2 games as the co-op game of choice. Look for Talien if you want some help surviving the zombie apocalypse
"I just can't get over how FAST they all are, it's not even fair. I'm calling zombie bull$#!+ on that, you know? They're not...ALLOWED to be so fast." --Zoey



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