In my extensive 10 years of dicking about on the internet, I’ve learnt a few things. Firstly, don’t click a link that your friend claims is “really funny”. Next, no-one cares that much about what you think about much (woah). And finally: generally speaking, the internet is a malevolent force. And of course, no unrelenting demonforce is complete without little helpers, manifested by the assorted detritus that is the internet community. Of course, most of them are good (apparently), but never is there a hive of more scum and villainy than internet gaming. Specifically, the first person shooter. For some reason, giving anonymous people virtual guns and telling each other to “basically, go nuts” is a bad idea in the end.
I’ve attempted playing Counterstrike: Source in the past, but that experiment endly rather quickly. Team Fortress 2 has been my loyal pet for quite a while now, but under the present situation my Steam client has decided it doesn’t want to update TF2, and instead amuses itself by crashing. So it was with reluctance I picked up Left 4 Dead, the newest game from Valve. I’m sure you all know about it, but for those who don’t: A group of 4 survivors fends off zombies (including powerful boss zombies) in an attempt to get to safety. Oh, and slight thing: All four survivors (and occaisonally the zombies) are controlled by real people supposedly working together over the internet. Let’s see how that pans out, shall we?
First up, there’s not much use buying this without a good internet connection. The singleplayer teammate AI, although capable, lacks the random human element and motivation to keep going throughout the levels. They won’t take the lead, for instance, forcing you to keep the party going no matter how close to death you are. The game is controlled by a system known as The Director; it works well, assuming “well” means “Holy crap holy crap there’s zombies everywhere”. It does mean, however, the whole thing keeps fresh throughout the playthroughs. It’s a good thing, too, as there’s only four campaigns at the moment. Admittably, they are all broken up into lovely little chapters, but it seems Valve is banking on downloadable content (free for the PC, naturally). Each campaign will last you for about the same length as a short horror film, so be prepared to take breaks if you need them. Continuing with the whole cinematic thread, Left 4 Dead comes across as a delightful horror movie in its own right. Each campaign has the prerequisite cheesy title: Guess where “Blood Harvest” takes you through? Give up? IT’S A FARM, JACKASS. The graphics of the game are drained with some sort of film grain, almost giving the whole first-person thing a Cloverfield spin. And whilst the campaign’s loading you get a movie poster displaying the cast in this macarbe tale.
I suppose that brings us to the cast. Truth be told, there’s not much you can do in an online shooter in terms of character, but Left 4 Dead’s seem relatively well designed. The opening sequence illustrates their personalities perfectly: Bill, a Vietnam vet who’s also the group’s knowitall; Louis, a sarcastic office worker who also fills the niche for a stereotypical African-American; Francis, the biker who seems oddly comfortable holding a gun; and Zoey… The obligatory girl. The soundbites are well-written, though – even if they do announce every single reload – and they’ll play automatically if your character hears a boss zombie approaching or finds something useful. It’s handy not to have to deal with constant messaging (especially if you lack a headset), though there seems to be very few sound files for “I’m reloading”, which you will hear often.
The guns of the game feel very distinctive. True to Valve form, each weapon has tradeoffs or advantages, so they’re all balanced. You start off only being able to choose from two – a shotgun or an uzi – which is good enough on it’s own, really. Still, each player also starts with a pistol that never runs out of ammo, and soon you’ll be able to dual-wield them. And once you get a small way through a campaign’s chapters, you’ll get a bit more choice, with a combat shotgun, assault rifle or hunting rifle all up for grabs. Only one primary weapon at once, though, so there’s a fair degree of specialization required.
“But is it a true zombie game?” I hear you ask. Well, I’d first correct you by saying they’re not strictly speaking zombies (think more the Rage virus). And yes, I suppose it is. You’ll never feel completely at ease unless you’re in a safe house. The AI director ensures games maintain unpredictable, and you never know when an angry horde will come sprinting and climbing into your direction. You really get those “Oh, bollocks” moments when the Director decides to send zombies whilst you’re reloading, and having to shoot down a Smoker who’s busily choking your friend in the middle of a massive undead cluster is always tense. Oh, while we’re on the topic of bosses, you will learn to hate them. They’ll never catch you completely off guard, though, as you can normally hear their distinctive call or musical motif before they show up. Then there’s the witch. DO NOT DISTURB THE WITCH. Seriously though, there’s nothing more unnerving than having to move through the pitch-black (lights startle them, you see), listening to them sob whilst also hearing the groans of the horde getting closer…
Is it a perfect game, though? Well, it depends. The largest gameplay quibble would be getting stuck with a bad team, though you can’t attribute that to bad game design. What you CAN attribute bad game design to, however, is the lack of a server select. Instead, the game forces you to use a lobby system, where you get thrown into a waiting room with random players. Of course, you could set up a password one, but it almost takes the whole server dedication away. I can report good ping, though, despite my lame internet, so it’s fine by me. Oh, and apparently there’s a fair amount of exploiting going on at the moment. It’s something that will be ironed out quickly, knowing Valve, but it’s still rather annoying for the time being if it happens to you. Still, slight niggles in gameplay or design can’t detract from the fact this is to date the definitive Zombie Survival game. So for a bit of shooting with randoms that doesn’t involve “OMG WTF HAX”, get your cold, clammy hands on Left 4 Dead.