Also, at random intervals determined by the director AI, the hulking Tank zombie will show up. It’s such a major event that the music changes to an ominous theme and the screen shakes, giving the survivors a brief warning that something really bad is about to go down, so they’d better change their tactics (like getting out of confined corridors and into an open area where they have a chance at evading, and everyone can get a clear shot). The director will also occasionally place a Witch in your path, making you change tactics once again by turning off your flashlights and sneaking by. Even though you get an audio warning in the form of her wailing cry, Witches can sometimes seem like unfair enemies, because if they spawn in certain positions, like right around a corner, it may be impossible to sneak by or even find them without startling them. That can easily ruin your good mood.
In the fifth stage of each campaign, the survivors reach a rendezvous point for their extraction and signal their readiness over a radio, then must hold out for several minutes against the most intense zombie onslaught yet. These climactic scenes are real nail-biters, with heavily armed survivors fending off attackers coming from all sides until rescue arrives, at which point they must make a desperate run for the evacuation vehicle against a last-minute zombie surge. It’s a scenario that all but the best players will only survive by the skin of their teeth, if at all, making for some incredibly tense moments.
The campaign content, which took our crack squad about six hours to fight through, may seem meager at first for a full-priced game, but once you’ve played it, try this trick: play it again. The Director ensures excellent variety on each playthrough by shuffling around weapon, item (like explosive barrels and ammo drops), and enemy placement. In one round, we set up an ambush for an incoming horde of zombies using a pair of gas cans we found, frying the entire lot nearly effortlessly. The next time through that same area there were no gas cans to be found, so we were forced to come up with a new strategy to deal with what we thought would be the same attack… but zombies poured through a vent in the ceiling behind us, taking us by surprise. Once you think you’ve got a handle on things, the advanced and expert difficulty levels will keep the challenge fresh for significantly longer (and unlock some extra achievements).
One relatively minor quibble that stuck in my craw is the inability to customize my in-game avatar. The four survivors (Bill, Louis, Zoey, and Francis) all look fantastic in this newest version of the Source engine, and sport detailed facial animations, plus individualized voices for contextual color commentary, but being shoehorned into one of these roles ever-so-slightly cramped my style. Plus, you don’t always get to choose which of the survivors to play as, and someone’s always going to get stuck playing as the girl. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as the differences between characters are 100 percent cosmetic, but the lack of choice is a bit surprising in a modern game.
Besides lacking opportunities to barricade a door against a crowd of zombies or rip through them with a chain saw, and the notable absence of a shopping mall campaign (too cliche, Valve?), Left 4 Dead delivers every moment you could hope for in a zombie game. Case in point: you get to legitimately shout to your teammates, “Leave me, I’m done for! Save yourselves - GO!” while you try to buy them some time by firing your dual pistols into the descending horde as you lie wounded on the ground. And as awesome as that is, the unique experience of playing as the boss infected almost steals the show from the survivors. Left 4 Dead’s emphasis on teamwork and vague hints of story may not appeal to gamers who demand a focused single-player experience, but for the millions out there who have ever imagined their role in the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, it simply cannot be missed.
Nov 17, 2008