Crispy Gamer

Left 4 Dead (PC)

A few years back, while adding bots to Counter-Strike, folks at Valve Software realized they could create wildly compelling gameplay by pitting a small group of players against a relentless horde of enemies. The setup enforced teamwork and enhanced the experience of survival. From there, it was only a few years of intensive horror movie research and game prototyping before Left 4 Dead was born.

Left 4 Dead for PC review screenshot
Each of the four campaigns (each with five chapters) is presented as a horror movie.

The game's core concept is as elegant as that of Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike: Four humans have banded together in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, and they have to fight through hordes of shambling, shrieking, occasionally sprinting undead to reach safe houses and, eventually, an extraction point that will lead to a new, safer life.

With such a simple conceit, Left 4 Dead inspires one primary concern: longevity (Valve's label notwithstanding). How can a game that, in essence, might have graced an arcade cabinet 20 years ago prove to be as worthy of attention over time as games that have 30-plus hours of story and replayability?

Left 4 Dead for PC review screenshot
Even in seemingly open outdoor environments, severe danger awaits. The rooftops crawl with Smokers...

The answer comes in several parts, but the key to it all is an artificial intelligence routine with the imposing name of the Director. The reference there should be obvious, given the game's B-movie roots. At all times the AI is looking over your shoulder, evaluating performance and tailoring the game accordingly. It makes decisions such as when and where basic zombie hordes will spawn, how the dynamic music will rise or fall to create atmosphere, and where weapon caches and special items will drop.

Between the Director and routines that control both zombies and your fellow survivors, Left 4 Dead is a triumph of AI. As the Director keeps things moving and changing from game to game, the enemy AI does a superb job of turning each zombie from a rotting flesh-bag into a credible, frightening threat; while the friendly AI ensures that the other survivors in your party always have a helping hand ready, should you need it. And you will.

Left 4 Dead for PC review screenshot
When the Horde begins to swarm, often the best you can do is shove 'em away, fire blind and hope for help.

Playing offline, you'll see the AI in action often, as it fills out the other three survivor roles. The skillful play you'll see -- which is often more useful, if not more entertaining, than having other human players on your team -- makes a joke of the cooperative AI in games like Gears of War 2. The CPU survivors will shoot distant threats, swat away that Hunter zombie that just pinned you to the ground, and generally have your back at all times. They occasionally get hung up in little environmental corners, but in 30-plus hours of gameplay I've yet to see any quirk that breaks a level or even acts as more than a momentary hang-up.

Left 4 Dead for PC review screenshot
Isn't strangulation by Smoker prohibited by most state laws?

Without the excellent zombie designs, the Director wouldn't have much to work with. Tall, stooped Smokers attack from a distance with their tongues, which constrict Survivors and pull them away from the group. Hunters violently pounce, gigantic Tanks require real group unity to take down, and corpulent, waddling Boomers vomit bile to attract the nameless sprinting zombie horde. Witches add a weird stealth element to the gameplay: Skirt by the crying Witch and you'll be fine, but disturb her and the guilty party might be torn to shreds.

In every case Valve has superbly animated the characters, giving them weight and personality. Wildly creepy voice work (including characteristic shrieks from Mike Patton) give voice to these reanimated corpses, and the individual sounds of each "special" zombie are recognizable enough that you'll be on your guard long before you actually see a Boomer or Hunter.

Left 4 Dead for PC review screenshot
Play much Versus mode, and you'll see this -- the view from a Hunter's eyes -- more than you'd like.

This is the evolution of the arcade design document. Lack of narrative, static core characters and limited enemies collude with one intent: to test your skills and endurance. Co-op campaigns are a great way to learn the maps, but nothing is quite as visceral as the Versus mode, in which four players inhabit the Survivors and four take on shifting roles among the Infected. Playing as the Survivors here is more or less as it is in other modes, with the added knowledge that the more dangerous zombies are now controlled by humans rather than AI.

These "special" Infected do more than add variety to the Horde. They reinforce the need for players to stick together. A lone player attacked by a Hunter or Smoker is toast; once in the zombie's clutches, there's no way out without help from a friend. I've never played a multiplayer game that provided so much incentive to stick together, and the experience is unique. Valve reinforces the need for teamwork even more by allowing everyone to be the medic; many matches offer great moments of decision. Do you keep bandages for yourself, or heal another player? Three people have far less chance of surviving than four.

Left 4 Dead for PC review screenshot
The Boomer is physically imposing, but it's his stinking green puke that hurts. Just like in the real world.

The social mechanics that come to life in Left 4 Dead aren't quite morality and aren't quite fascism, but somewhere in between. How many games create a scenario where three people will wildly fight to save a fourth, only to give up when they collectively realize that the cause is lost? And while players sacrificing themselves to divert enemies are hardly unheard of in gaming, there's a palpable sense of loss in Versus mode when you know they won't spawn again. In one match I watched a nearly dead friend limp off to draw the Horde's attention before dying. Was I sad to see him go, or scared because I knew the rest of us faced more daunting odds without him?

I hate to use the term "fun" in a review, because there's nothing more uselessly subjective. Instead, I can attempt to describe the mad, evil satisfaction I felt as three friends and I hit a group of Survivors with Boomer bile while they were creeping through a chain of subway cars, and how we threatened to overload our headsets as the Hunters and Smoker proceeded to tear the last life out of the poor quartet.

Left 4 Dead for PC review screenshot
Splitting up is rarely advisable, but sometimes planting half the team as elevated snipers isn't a bad tactic.

While the Xbox 360 edition is a great example of coding for consoles, players on Steam will find a much more detailed and crisp visual experience. Making the choice between the two is difficult -- I've got a lot more friends on Live than Steam -- but after playing the 360 version for a while and then switching to Steam, I was gobsmacked by the improvements in character details. The momentum and body language of each dying zombie seemed more powerful, and the other Survivor characters come to brighter life thanks to more realistic skins. This only emphasizes the game's masterful use of light and shadow, and how Valve keeps the maps dense and intricate, but eases navigation with well-placed light sources.

Thankfully, the strategic qualities of the team play are identical on Steam and the 360. Where Gears of War 2 is satisfying in a brutal, reactive way, Left 4 Dead invites more planning and cooperation. The Horde mode of Gears 2 is a good start for sheer against-the-masses gameplay. But the unwitting team of the Director and other players intent on grinding the scrappy Survivor group into hamburger brings co-op play to an entirely different -- and far more satisfying -- level.

This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.