I don’t know why it’s taken so long for someone to make Left 4 Dead, considering the total simplicity of it all. While most zombie based games revolve around complex storylines (Dead Rising, the Resident Evil games) and/or a focus on puzzle solving, L4D just strips everything down to the basics: You have a gun, a small stash of ammo, a healthpack, and 3 fellow survivors watching your back (provided you watch theirs). Get from point A to B without getting killed by an endless stream of zombies. That’s it.
The great thing about L4D is that it’s possibly the first next-gen game that captures the feeling of an arcade classic like Pac-Man or Asteroids. The story is non-existent, the gameplay rather repetitive, and the changes in background are mostly cosmetic (be it a sewer, a cornfield, or a train station, there is precious little difference between any of the 20 levels in the game). But damned if I didn’t play it for 5 straight hours last night, and was greeted with the “when I shut my eyes I am still playing the game” feeling usually associated with Tetris or Hexic (or Spider Solitaire, my deepest addiction).
And yet I’m playing a rental. I’m hardly thrifty when it comes to video game buying; I own about 30 X360 games, half of which I’ve never even played, and probably another half dozen I’ve never finished. So why haven’t I added this to the collection? Simple: the offline component is damn near worthless. Sure, there is a visceral element to enjoy, but that hardly justifies a 60 dollar cost. Should the internet get turned off forever, L4D would be as worthless as a World of Warcraft disc, as far as I’m concerned.
The reason for this is as simple as the game itself: it’s too short (you can play all four campaigns in under as many hours) and has very little replay value. Much has been made of the game’s “never the same twice” element, but that only refers to where zombies spawn and (less likely to change) locations of special items like Molotov cocktails or pain pills. I’m sorry, but just because the fat puking zombie appeared on the right side of the train instead of the left like he did the time before doesn’t make it a new game. Plus, the lack of checkpoints results in a very frustrating experience; more than once I was within sight of the “safehouse” (get there to beat the level) only to be swarmed and killed, which resulted in having to do the entire level over again. Even a single “halfway” checkpoint would improve things greatly.
I should quickly mention the big finales for each campaign (one is seen below). They are a lot of fun, even offline, and I almost wish there were more moments like them throughout the campaign. You call for rescue and the guy tells you he'll be there in 10 minutes (not realtime, thankfully), so you have to defend the position until then. It's the type of scenario you find in Gears of War or whatever, but when your rescue is at stake (the boat/ship/whatever will just leave without you if you don't get there quick enough once he arrives) it becomes all the more exciting. Still, since these are by far the most difficult parts of the game (except, bizarrely, for the final campaign's, which is almost criminally easy due to its having a closet that a blind man could defend), I wish they were their own stage, so that a death didn't mean having to also replay the 5-10 minutes of game stage that led to it.
Another issue concerning replayability is the lack of things to do to change HOW you play. The four characters are completely interchangeable, so it doesn’t make any difference which one you use, and there are only the four basic styles of gun to use (shotgun, machine gun, pistol, and sniper rifle. No flamethrowers or chainsaws here). Every level has one “puzzle” (for lack of a better word) like opening an emergency exit or turning on a forklift, which results in a massive zombie horde descending upon you, but these tasks are superfluous and require less brainpower than it takes to press start at the beginning of the game. Maybe if the designers changed up things like the safehouse location (they are often a single room in a large complex, but there’s an onscreen icon that shows you where it is once you’re in the vicinity) and how to proceed past certain obstacles, they’d have something, but otherwise, if you don’t have an XBL gold account or a 2nd controller for a friend (preferably a 3rd and 4th as well), then you won’t even make up an entire weekend’s worth of playtime with it.
BUT, and it’s a huge but, the online component is simply awesome. The more actual people that are playing, the better it is (if you only have 3 guys, the AI will control the 4th). Most fun is VS, in which you alternate between playing as humans and playing as the special zombies that pop up from time to time in the game, such as a Smoker (guy with a long tongue that can drag someone away), a Hunter (pounce around and swipe), a Boomer (puke gas that attracts regular zombies), or a Tank (a giant monster that takes about an entire ammo supply to kill). This is where strategy and “it’s different every time” gameplay factors in, as you can choose your spawn point. Do you spawn behind the heroes and get them from behind? Or ambush them from a concealed position ahead? And if you have a good team, you can work together: have a Smoker pull someone in, have the Boomer puke on them, and let the attracted zombies finish him/her off while you move on to the next target. Since the heroes never get to do anything but shoot and run, being bad also means getting to tax your brain skills a tiny bit.
And even the campaigns, while still a bit dull in execution (and why do our heroes insist on fleeing in the middle of the night?), are vastly more entertaining when you are going at it with friends or random Xbox folk. At least, provided they play as a team. Last night the team got split in two; me and my “partner” were killed because the other two were too far off to help. But as we watched them play from the “ghost camera”, we saw one of them get in trouble, and the other guy just concerned himself with running around in circles and practicing headshots rather than help. It wasn't our distance, the guy was just an asshole. Of course, they both ended up dying within seconds as well, and the asshole was kicked off the team. Luckily, he was a rarity in the evening, most players understood the concept of the game and worked well with strangers. Having a headset is a must though; you need to be able to shout out locations and upcoming enemies to your teammates in order to all get through alive. But the human element also makes for a more interesting gameplay dynamic – the AI teammates will always try to save you (and often succeed), and seemingly have eyes like a hawk when it comes to spotting hidden special zombies, but when its down to the wire, a human may choose to save himself rather than risk both of you dying, and even a rescue attempt isn't always successful due to not seeing a Hunter that was lying in wait.
There is also a zombie called a Witch that the AI teammates never fail to alert, even though skipping past them is actually quite easy. With all four members being played by human beings, Witches are hardly ever a problem (they are pretty much the most vicious enemies in the game, they can incapacitate you instantly. Even the Tank takes 2-3 hits to do that).
Achievement points are given out at a nice clip as well. If you play well you can expect to get 3-4 per campaign, plus the end of the level completion one no matter what. After about 5 hours I managed to get nearly half of the awards, and like Gears of War 2, there is a way to keep track of the ones with “Kill X amount of zombies with ____” type setups, which is awesome if you’re a compulsive. “Only 43 more kills for the incinerator achievement!”. My favorite, and one I’ll probably never actually earn, is "Zombie Genocidest", which rewards you for killing 53,595 zombies. It’s an in-joke to Dead Rising’s "Zombie Genocider", which rewarded you for taking out 53,594 of the undead (the number isn’t completely random – it’s the population of the town the game takes place in). I believe this is the first AP to reference another game (one not even the same game company), so this made me smile. But since my current count is around 2k, I don’t expect I’ll get this one anytime soon, if ever. Still, having the counter is a great touch, and I hope to see it in more games.
So is it worth your 60 bucks? Yeah, if your friends can guarantee they will play it for a while, and/or you are very friendly with strangers over XBLive. Valve has promised extra campaign maps (including, YES!, one based on the mall from Dawn ’04), which means that there is something to look forward to. Also, as of right now, only 2 of the 4 campaigns are available on VS, so I hope that the other 2 will be coming along. But if you aren’t equipped to go online, you really won’t get the “good” part of the game, and you’ll be spending 60 bucks on something that takes less time to play through than some 8 bit Nintendo games. Like the Battlefield 1942 games and all their sequels, the offline campaign is seemingly there just to milk a few bucks out of dialup stricken sods, or to be used as a slightly more entertaining tutorial. Online is where it’s at, but given the fickle game market, the next big online game could wipe the Left 4 Dead servers dry as everyone moves on (think it can’t happen? Go try to find an online game of Condemned 2 going on right now). I can’t help but compare it to say Halo 3, which I still play 2-3 times a week, and thus have more than justified its cost. Will L4D last as long? Time will tell. But if Gamefly and Blockbuster are no help, then suck it up and fork over the dough now while it’s at its prime.
What say you?
P.S. I know this is Youtube, but even so, you can probably tell that the game's graphics aren't exactly the greatest you'll see. Everything looks too thin, and there aren't a lot of impressive lighting/texture things either. However, this pays off - there is almost never any slowdown or framerate issues, no matter how many zombies are onscreen. And you'll usually be too busy running and shooting to notice.