Published by Valve, 2008
I realize there has been dearth of horror movie reviews on this site of late. I could blame the onset of winter months, which are the weakest weeks of the year as far as horror is concerned, but that would be a scapegoat. I was out of the country for a few weeks, sure, but I’ve been lazy upon my return; another scapegoat. Truth is, as far as horror is concerned, all of my free time of late has been trapped by LEFT 4 DEAD, a zombie shooter from Valve, the most exceptional game studio around.
I’m about to go out on a limb that will seem wholly hyperbolic. The weight of the proceeding comment will seem a joke, but my face is, as always, deadpan:
LEFT 4 DEAD is the best zombie experience since George Romero made DAWN OF THE DEAD.
I shit you negative.
LEFT 4 DEAD is a four player co-op campaign game published by Valve, one of the few remaining studios on the planet committed unilaterally to the game and the gaming community, for Xbox 360 and the PC. Game play centers around 4 survivors of a zombie apocalypse whose only goal on this blue ball is to make it from one destination to the other without an abiotic horde of the unholy making a meal of their mitochondria. Absent is any concrete narrative, rather the players can construct whatever storyline they wish out of the characters present (a grizzled war vet, an IT worker, a biker and a horror movie fan girl) and the arenas in between them (urban hospital, country road, airport, farm). The story, as such, manifests itself out of these players and their ability to perform as a team.
2008 has found itself with some canonical games so far, but I’m completely serious when I say a mere 10 logged hours with LEFT 4 DEAD have already found me repeated bliss in the simplest of actions. Smacking a zombie in the face with the butt of a shotgun and then gracefully pointing the barrel of said death dealer in the maw of their crimson cloud producing face.
It is glorious.
It is impossible to have two identical experiences playing LEFT 4 DEAD. Implemented is an AI Director, who adjusts all kinds of factors (difficulty setting, player skill, player health) and commands legions of the undead to rush from unpredictable directions. There are only 4 campaigns in the game (levels) at present, but their level design is open ended enough to allow for an astronomical combination of attack approaches and retreats. This is where the tales of experience emerge. If you’re like me and play games with people you work with, I assure you that the next morning will be filled with conversation that will ring as nonsense to the unfamiliar, “Fucking witches, man. Sitting right outside the safe zone.” or, if you happen to be me, “We were on the chopper and Louis was swarmed on the ramp. I had to zoom in and put him out of his misery.”
LEFT 4 DEAD’s difficulty ranges from breeze to formidable to seven nation army. If you’re a fan of FPS, normal is too easy, advanced is just challenging enough to die a few times, and expert is an absurd black hole in to which all of your futile time will be sucked. To put it in perspective, the same campaign took thirty minutes to run through on normal, an hour ish on advanced and over two hours on expert to get only half way through the level before giving up and changing the difficulty to advanced. But the play is so addicting that I will return again and again until I’ve beaten it on expert.
In addition to the co-op campaign, there is a co-op versus mode in which 4 survivors and 4 undead battle each other across the maps. It is a unique mode, to say the least, which provides for a pleasant alternative perspective on it all. I haven’t played versus but once, however this is only because I’m addicted to the campaign mode. To be honest, I am also addicted to shooting zombies in their doomed faces until I make it rain red.
Naturally exploding zombie heads is not sufficient enough on its own to warrant such Romero matching claims as previously mentioned. The mechanics of the game are fantastic, sure, but the experience of it all rises above pointing and clicking. Even without a concrete plot, LEFT 4 DEAD has managed to simulate to the core the notion of apocalypse better than any game I have ever played. [And that is a statement from someone who considers the original FALLOUT to be the apex of interactive media] Valve manages this feat by banishing scripted events, allowing the storyline to unfold randomly each time. This combined with the variety of undead and boss undead you face and LEFT 4 DEAD has become an energetic zombie adventure with friends that is going to take a long, long time to get old.
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