Have you ever wished that multiplayer games really did much of anything to force people to work together? How many times have you lost a round in an FPS because of a lone wolf who runs off to do his own thing? It seems like they really think that running off by themselves will be leads them to victory, undeterred by little things like repeated deaths. If you are indeed one of the victims of these sorts of players you will be happy to know that Left 4 Dead is one of the most ruthless game experiences ever to these players. The name of the game is teamwork and if you fail on that end, well then you're zombie dinner.
Left 4 Dead isn't really a coherent gaming experience like other games. Instead each scenario stands entirely on its own, with a starting point and ending that are unconnected to the other scenarios. Stepping into the role of one of four survivors who are apparently immune to whatever infection has gripped the land you will be trying to make your way to safety. You're not told much else about the world, how far the infection has spread or anything. The information you can find on walls is more about setting mood than explaining things. If you're dedicated you can piece together some of what's going on but it's a moot issue. The point of this game isn't the strong storytelling that has held up Half-Life 2 but its team based gameplay.
The core mode of L4D is that of the campaign mode. This is a cooperative effort to play through any of the four scenarios with either fellow players or bots if necessary. You can play this in a solo offline mode, via system link or split screen with others locally (two players per Xbox 360) or online with players from all over although there is no PC to 360 cross play. On the 360, even better is that you can play split screen over the internet with a friend and if your friend doesn't have an Xbox Live Gold account he can play as a guest on your console. It's nice to see this option in there so even your friends who don't own a 360 can just come over and join you.
And boy oh boy, are you going to need them. Left 4 Dead employs an AI that is called the Director to make your experience more dynamic. What this means is that every time you load up a level, no matter how often you've played it, you will never know where everything is. Even though there are certain aspects to each stage that are set in stone there are plenty of variables. You can never be sure when you will come across explosives, improved weapons or health pickups or even hordes of the Infected.
Obviously you will encounter zombies everywhere but the Director also controls how they spawn. If you're doing poorly (low on ammo and health) then you will find less zombies and perhaps even more health or explosives. But if you're doing well, or lingering in an area too long, it will call down hordes of Infected on you, increase the rate that the Special Infected spawn in or place a Witch in your path. Due to this dynamic and the fact that there are points in each stage where you will have to alert the horde working as a group is the only feasible way to get through these levels. Even with a group all it takes is accidentally setting off a car alarm when people are wounded to really drive your team into the ground. Stay alert and watch each others backs or die.
Unfortunately the computer AI is a lot better at controlling the Infected than it is at controlling the bots on your team. They don't pay much heed to how they move around, if you're in their line of fire or even car alarms at time making them a great liability. Even worse they have a tendency to not stay close to the players when the Horde is coming, getting themselves incapacitated and leaving you to run over and save them. This is only endangering your life more than necessary. You're best off playing with other players since the only thing the computer has going for it is its unerring ability to hit zombies they shouldn't be able to see (blocked by foliage for example).
The Infected come in six flavors, each of which will provide you a challenge. The basic Infected aren't a threat individually but they're persistent, hard to out maneuver and come in large groups. When they attack as a horde they're a very real threat to your health. The four Special Infected are even worse, capable of causing massive difficulty. The Hunter is agile and can pounce on survivors, pinning them down and ripping them up while the Smoker uses his incredibly long and agile tongue to drag off victims and constrict them. Boomers are disgustingly bloated and spew greenish bile that draws Hordes to anyone it hits and the Tank is exactly what it sounds like, capable of tearing through a group of survivors on his own.
Last but not least is the Witch, the strongest of the Infected. Much like the other Special Infected there are audio and musical cues to let you know when she's around. Unlike the others she wants only to be left alone, curled up somewhere and crying. But if you happen to arouse her ire by drawing her attention she flies into a rage and will attempt to kill the person who annoyed her. Seeing as how she does more damage than the Tank this is usually a bad idea.
Playing Versus mode lets four people play as survivors while four play as the Infected, taking turns playing through stages and competing to see who does best. It's an interesting and fun mode since playing as the Special Infected (the Witch isn't playable) is incredibly dynamic and different from the survivors. While the humans are doing their best to make their way through the stage without dying the Infected have only one goal: to kill. Climbing up walls, pouncing on survivors and causing general mayhem are all great fun. Unfortunately this mode has issues if the game isn't properly balanced out. Very rarely will the computer spawn in bot Infected so if there are only two Infected players and four survivors then the Infected are in trouble. Plus the AI survivors have ridiculous accuracy, capable of killing Infected players who have gone through great pains to hide themselves. It's really uneven and incredibly annoying.
There's plenty of talk about how the graphics in Left 4 Dead aren't the greatest but this seems to have been a conscious choice on Valves part. That's not to say that things don't look great because they do but it could be far better. However doing that would have caused some PCs and Xbox 360s to lag during the larger Horde attacks. Considering that snap reflexes are required, this would have been a really bad idea. Even still all four of the survivors, the Infected and the backgrounds are all well detailed and wonderfully lit, producing some great visuals. It only really gets noticeable during close inspection of some textures, like foliage.
What is actually quite incredible is the quality of the sound. Consisting of a well done mix of ambient sounds, music and the noises of the Infected silence is a rare blessing in this game. Then again that silence is often only punctuated by the screeches of a Hunter pouncing on someone. The music will often serve as a clue as to what Special Infected are nearby so the smart players keep their ears peeled for these tips.
Left 4 Dead is a fantastic experience so long as you can get yourself into games with good players. Even more than any other multiplayer focused FPS you desperately need a good, or at least intelligent, team to get you through these stages with minimal fuss. With the right team you can have an absolute blast for hours on end, more so than you might expect considering the limited number of stages available here. Left 4 Dead is a different sort of game with a lot of potential and any future downloadable content can only expand on that.