This week Zero Punctuation dines on the finest brains Valve has to offer in Left 4 Dead.
It's my observation that zombies are second only to ninjas, pirates, and monkeys in the list of things nerds like and need to shut the fuck up about. They watch movies about them, they dress up like them and wander around irritating commuters in major cities, and it seems every time a hot new engine comes out some craven optimist will try to make a zombie mod for it, Post-it one gun model and a piece of concept art before the level designer remembers he's only ever worked in Lego and the whole thing falls apart.
I guess its just that the breakdown of society is attractive to people with absolutely no social skills, and, while you may have to hide from slavering mutants your whole life, at least the big boys will never again tape you into a bin and kick you down the stairs. Valve have therefore proven to us just how big nerds they are (If that weren't already obvious from their series of games about a bespectacled scientist beating up hordes of big, tough, football scholarship marines) with Left 4 Dead, a true blue zombie game in the Source engine.
Now obviously there's been tons of games with zombies in, but in most cases they're just standard challenge obstacles to litter the corridors, interchangeable with terrorists, or aliens, or mean-spirited traffic barriers. The trick is to recreate the tension and emotion of the zombie apocalypse, where you and the last three sane people on Earth huddle together in a basement somewhere while the entire population of the landmass stand outside meaningfully rubbing their bellies and waving ice cream scoops. That is a true zombie game, because if you can pull it off, then you can replace the zombies with, say, koalas and it' still feel like a zombie game. And that's pretty much what Valve have gone for: oppressive, co-op, zombie fun.
And when I say co-op, try to imagine the word written in eighty foot high concrete letters. Usually when you talk about co-op in games, you're talking about a single player game in which some dolt follows you around hoovering up all the health and ammo. But Left 4 Dead is a rare co-op game in which the other players actually feel necessary. You need four chums worth of guns in play to take on the hordes, and you need your friends to save you from special zombie attacks. So if you separate from the group, you might as well drizzle chopped nuts over your shoulders and start shampooing your hair with barbecue sauce. Although frankly the other players are also one of your major threats, because the immediate appreciable difference between a disheveled, muddy-coloured survivor and the disheveled, muddy-coloured undead marathon runners whom he's fleeing from is very little at first glance. And when things get frantic, stopping for a second glance can lose you another two mouthfuls of brain.
On the other, less ethical side of things, you can also opt to play as the special zombies themselves, which transforms the game from tense survival horror into hilarious griefing engine. It's nice to see creative thinking rewarded when you successfully leap on a human player and start pulling his nipples out, and it's also curiously satisfying in ways I probably should tell my psychiatrist about. It is a little frustrating, however, when most of the time you'll be killed about as quickly as a gerbil in a speed bag, and then you have to wait twenty agonising, flow-breaking seconds for another go. It's probably there to keep the game balanced but there's no reason I couldn't play as one of the little crappy zombies while I wait; no need to rein in their numbers because they're like gerbils in speed bags full of broken glass.
Whether Left 4 Dead is good or not depends on what you ask for in a game. If you like a plot, there's certainly not a lot of that. "Here are some zombies" about sums it up. Other than that, you are part of a small team of the four unluckiest bastards in the entire holocaust who get rescued over and over again but it never seems to take. There's the old Vietnam veteran, the tattooed biker fellow, the hot college girl (who probably spends every single night sleeping with her arse to the wall), and there's also a nebbish office worker type who doesn't seem to need to shave, if you're looking for a character you can actually identify with. Although he is black, which probably fucks that up a bit. It's also not going to be your thing if you like to see a game evolve and reach closure. While most games endeavor to have a uniformly rising difficulty curve leading up to a satisfying crescendo, and hopefully a massive boss fight, preferably in space, Left 4 Dead starts about half way up the difficulty chart and stays there forever. Playing the same four campaigns over and over again might not sound like a world beater, but the repetition is eased by the so called A.I. Director, an omnipotent figure watching silently from the shadows who creates dramatic tension by conjuring health and ammo at the points when you need it and a billion zombies whenever he's bored. Which is all the time.
Anthropomorphising the system was probably a shrewd idea, because when cocks rocket skyward everyone likes having someone to blame who can't defend themselves. I saw someone pray to the A.I. Director once - this is probably how cults get started. As a game in itself, Left 4 Dead is beautifully designed, but I'm unconvinced the gameplay is varied enough to be as endlessly replayable as Team Fortress 2. Even with the A.I. Director, after a few games you'll pretty much know all the motions. But it is fun as a shared social experience, and quite invaluable if you're planning some kind of doomed voyage and need to know who among your circle of friends is most likely to spaz out under pressure. As I said, it's up to you whether you think this is all worth fifty bucks. But then, of course, I paid a hundred bucks for Mirror's Edge, so apparently I'm a retard.
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