Monday, January 26, 2009

Left 4 Dead (PC, 2008)

Even though I consider myself primarily a PC gamer, I have often visited Valve titles out of a sense of obligation more than genuine excitement. The science-laden world of Half Life never really did much for me beyond it's storytelling style and clever design. I primarily spent my time with modifications to Valve's games like Counterstrike, Team Fortress Classic, or more recently Team Fortress 2. Left 4 Dead, then, is the first Valve game that had me positively squirming in my seat with anticipation from the moment I heard about it. Zombies? Co-operative focus? Zombies?! Ravenholm was my favorite section of Half Life 2, and I knew that Valve could do the undead right. (Ew.)

The gameplay of Left 4 Dead is divided into two modes, Campaign and Versus. Campaign pits you and three friends (or bots, you pathetic loser) against the hordes, while Versus puts you and up to 7 friends on teams of four, with one team playing the Survivors and the other playing the Infected, taking turns moving through the levels. Versus can't be played with bots, so if you want to play a zombie and gnosh some brains you'll have to get online and play with other people.

On that note, the singleplayer functions in Left 4 Dead aren't even worth discussing. If you're playing this game with bots, you're absolutely doing it wrong. Get at least three friends and a microphone, and before you know it you'll be yelling obscenities at the Infected and screaming for your buddies to remove the cranium of the Hunter on top of you.

It's in those types of moments that Left 4 Dead really distinguishes itself from the rest of the multiplayer world. There isn't a game on the market that can top L4D in terms of co-operative experience. Whether you're playing the Infected and trying to run the survivors into the ground or you're a Survivor just trying to make it to that next safe room, you simply won't succeed or have as much fun without your teammates.

L4D not only does a great job of pulling you into your role as a teammate, it boasts the strongest characterization I've seen in a multiplayer shooter yet. Louis, Bill, Zoey, and the almighty Francis are a lot more than just a randomly assigned skin. They have personality to spare, as do the boss Infected, which is pretty impressive considering they just gibber and scream now and then. (Metal trivia: Mike Patton did the voices for the regular Infected) In all my time spent with Left 4 Dead, I have found myself speaking “in character” on more than one occasion, which stands as an excellent testament to how deeply involved you can get in the characters. I find myself groaning when I have to go and pick up Louis, but rushing to Zoey's aide whenever she's in trouble. Bill, I figure, can take care of himself.

Developers of the world, take note. Good characters are important, even in multiplayer games. L4D really raises the bar here, and I would be shocked if we didn't see more attempts at creating more three-dimensional characters for multiplayer games in the future.

Multiplayer games are intense affairs, with moments of uneasy calm peaking into crescendos of chaos. The Infected will come at you like a swarm possessed, and then return to their ambling state as you move on, lulling you into a false sense of secutity before building to another vigorous, horriffic assault. L4D distinguishes itself here, as well; the other first person shooters of the world tend to be a mix of short, intense battles and the occasional drawn-out ordeal. L4D builds it's intensity in truly sublime fashion, allowing the players to control the pace to a certain extent, but more importantly making the pace a focus of the game. In Versus, you'll find that the team that controls the pace tends to win the game. In Campaign, these moments occur organically as the hordes and boss Infected throw themselves at your bullets.

I would be remiss not to mention the matchmaking interface, as it leads to my only real complaints about the game. There is no standard Source server browsing here, unless you use a console command and connect to a game in progress. Most times, you will start in a lobby with some friends, and the lobby will find a game (and subsequently a server) for you. This kind of system should be familiar with anyone who has a console that they play games online with. Much like on a console, you may find yourself wishing for more features in the matchmaking almost right away. You will end up on servers in foreign countries, servers with terrible connections, and servers that really have no business existing in the first place. Once you're in the game, you'll have to run a vote to return to the lobby if the server is less than great, and start the process over again. Valve, in their infinite wisdom, also decided not to let you see your ping while in game, instead displaying your connection with a color-coded series of bars. Valve, I'm a grown man. Let me choose my own server, and let me see my ping. Color code it if you must, but this is a PC game. I demand the ability to connect to a server of my own choosing.

As soon as you find a decent server, these complaints will retreat to the furthest corners of your mind. You will only be concerned with surviving an onslaught of the walking dead, or picking off the few who dare to resist your undead fury. L4D is immediate and visceral in ways that only the best multiplayer shooters can compete with. Apart from the matchmaking, it brings only good things to the genre, and to gaming in general.

Left 4 Dead could be a perfect 10/10. In fact, depending on the level of support it receives from Valve in the next few months, I may have to revisit the score. As it is, though, the server finding woes are worth a deduction of at least a point. It's hard to find fault with much else, though, and this is as Epic of a Win as you can get without channeling the divine.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (Zombies Killed God)


is this your life? said...

as frank mentions, this game really depends on playing with friends. I tried it when it first came out with randoms and bots, and, while I did have fun, I felt no desire whatsoever to keep playing.

JD said...

I don't think L4D is bad by any means, but I think it's overrated. Even with friends it gets boring fairly quick. Even with versus mode I don't think there's much replayability.

They left a lot of potential on the table with this game. Put in four different characters but make them all exactly the same? They could have done a lot with that. Have each one be a different class, or just have one different "special" each or something. Or, like TF2, make the achievements unlock things.

autothrall said...

I'll probably purchase it when it's $20 or less. I've seen the game in action. It really isn't much good without a team.

I hate to say it, but:

Despite being a browser game, this is still the best multi-player survivor vs. zombie game I've tried.

frank austin said...

I disagree that L4D lacks replayability. It's a multiplayer shooter in Versus mode, with ten different maps. I do think that they need to release more campaigns and do a lot more with the matchmaking system, but I can't find fault with the game for something that it isn't - like TF2.

L4D is ultimately about getting from point A to point B in one (or four) pieces. It's not a game where the survivors have to fill different roles to be interesting, because different people will play each survivor differently regardless of whether or not Francis has a special attack that Louis doesn't. If you want different "classes", then you have the Infected side.

I've gone back and played L4D once a week or so since it's been released - that's a rare thing for me. As someone with a pretty short attention span, I've been surprised at just how long I've wanted to keep revisiting it.