Left 4 Dead / Left 4 Dead 2 – PC
Platform: PC (also available for XBox, Mac and Linux)
Developer: Turtle Rock Studios (L4D) / Valve Corporation (L4D2)
Publisher: Valve Corporation Release Date: Left 4 Dead November 17, 2008 / Left 4 Dead 2 November 17, 2009
Genre: Cooperative FPS
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
Reviewed by Malefico
The Left 4 Dead series is Valve Corporation’s award-winning co-op FPS contribution to the “zombie” game genre. In fact, the hordes wandering the post-pandemic world are known as the Infected, more like 28 Days Later (with some Resident Evil mixed in) than Night of the Living Dead. Whatever, they don’t look healthy and they try to kill you, so they must be sent packing. I’m writing this review now as recent “leaks” point to a third installment which apparently has been in development for some time. No release date has been confirmed, but the purported new title gave me the idea to revisit this excellent franchise.
In the Left 4 Dead games, you play as one of four Survivors making their way to safety through various hostile habitats. Opposing you are numerous Infected individuals and four Special Infected types, which differ in the two games. Teamwork and cooperation are strong themes in these games. There are the obvious tactical implications of a four-person team in combat. With the Survivors relaying on one another to revive them when they are critically wounded, save them from falling from buildings or bridges and release them from the locked rooms in which they spawn after death it’s important to stay close together to render assistance when necessary and concentrate firepower against Horde rushes. If all the Survivors are incapacitated or dead, the team loses.
Games are organized into Campaigns, which are further split into Chapters- typically the team starts at a point far from rescue and must battle through the chapters to get to an extraction point. The Campaigns increase in difficulty and higher levels offer a real challenge to players, who must defend strongholds or assemble/restart machines to make it to safety.
Online games feature Campaign and Versus modes among others. Versus games are especially fun as you get the opportunity to play as the Special Infected described below. In these games, Survivors rarely prevail as a well-organized and decently skilled Infected team has all the tools at its disposal to send them on to the Great FPS Map in the Sky.
These games have a strong online community via Steam, and modders have created thousands of new item and character skins in addition to new levels and behavioral changes for the Infected. Like many PC games, buying the software opens the door to huge amounts of free DLC.
The L4D series use industry-standard FPS controls- W, A, S and D to move, mouse to look/aim/fire, E to interact, R to reload, F for flashlight, Shift to run, Ctrl to crouch and Space to jump. Mouse wheel or number keys change weapons, and certain weapons can be zoomed with the right mouse button. Controls work fine and have good precision; weapons can be aimed accurately to minimize ammo use.
These games use the Source engine and so are pretty much bullet-proof, this architecture having been used on a number of games before the L4D franchise.
Weapons occupy two of the five slots in character inventory. Regarding weapons, they are commonly available and fall into three categories- pistols, sub machine guns and rifles, sniper or automatic. L4D2 introduced melee weapons including chain saws and rare heavy weapons like M60’s and grenade launchers. Like the chain saw, these weapons have a finite ammo supply that cannot be replenished, so they can only be used for a limited time. Basically, between the original content and all the modded weapons available, if it exists on Earth it has been created as DLC for the L4D series.
Weapon upgrades include Explosive and Incendiary ammo, which last for one of a given weapon’s magazines/capacity and Laser sights, which improve accuracy and last until a weapon is discarded.
The third inventory slot holds explosives or other items designed to give the team an edge over the Infected. There are two explosives- pipe bombs with a timed fuse that attract normal Infected and kill large groups, and Molotov cocktails that spread a pool of flame on the ground and kill large groups. L4D2 introduced Bile Bombs, which attract the Horde to a particular spot.
The last two slots are for healing items. Medkits and Portable Defibrillators (L4D2) heal damage and revive dead characters respectively. Pain pills provide a temporary health boost and Adrenaline (L4D2) gives a brief speed buff.
Characters / Enemies
In L4D, you have the choice to play Bill, Francis, Louis or Zoe. L4D2 introduces four new Survivors- Coach, Ellis, Nick and Rochelle, although the original group does make cameo appearances.
Opposing the Survivor groups are a large number of the Infected. These poor souls can be male or female and in a variety of sorry conditions.
In certain L4D campaigns, Uncommon Infected appear. Left 4 Dead limits the Uncommon types to skin changes, but in L4D2 these enemies do have some special abilities. For instance, the CEDA (think CDC) workers are immune to fire and there are riot police Infected that still have their body armor on…
Aside from the run-of-the-mill mobs, there are five kinds of Special Infected- the Boomer, Hunter, Smoker, Tank and Witch. L4D2 adds the Charger, Jockey and Spitter to round out the rogue’s gallery of horrific foes. Each special features its own unique attack, and several of them have the effect of rendering the victim helpless and resulting in death if a teammate doesn’t intervene. Chargers, Hunters, Jockeys and Smokers fall into this category.
Even the ones that don’t render you helpless are very dangerous. Boomers vomit bile onto the Survivors, ringing the dinner bell for all common Infected in the area and generating a Mob attack. The bile also blinds you temporarily. Good times. The spitter launches a corrosive acid spray at the team, which covers a small area on the map and does increasing damage each second as long as they remain within its effects.
Tanks, as their name implies, are raging behemoths- pretty much the Hulk with an even worse attitude. Their powerful blows can launch cars, etc. into the air to crash into the group, scattering and very possibly killing one or more Survivors. Even without the benefit of two-ton missiles, the Tank can easily beat you to death with its bare hands. The Witch is the only Infected that does not attack automatically. Stay within her aggro radius for too long, however, and one of the team will “startle” her. She will rush that person and if she reaches the Survivor, one blow will render that character helpless. For more complete info on characters and Infected, please visit the appropriate Wiki pages for L4D and L4D2.
The game environments are well done and convey a sense of foreboding and dread. Peaceful city streets are too quiet, and often the shadowy movements of wandering Infected can be seen at the limits of your vision. Dark woods mask the movements of enemies until they are right on top of you, and in L4D2 weather effects like driving rain and sudden windstorms limit vision even further. In many maps, mist hangs close to the ground, adding to the atmosphere and creating an eerie nightmarish quality.
The game world is detailed, too with all the accoutrements you’d expect in a world ravaged by the swift spread of a deadly disease. There are a number of interactive elements like doors, gates, barricades, bridges, elevators, and even gas cans, propane and oxygen bottles that can be shot to produce flame or an explosion. While L4D features mostly city environments, L4D2 takes the characters to fetid swamps and even a carnival, improving the variety of maps.
Player and Infected models are nothing groundbreaking, but not bad either, good enough to provide a convincing threat to players. The animations of the Infected are well done- besides the recognizable sound effects each type makes, they all move differently as well. Especially with the more powerful Infected, the bellows, grunts or screams ratchet up the tension as you wonder where they’ll come at you. All in all, the models and animations add to the desperate mood of the game and contribute to its often frenetic pace.
The POS handles these games fine at 1280 X 720, less than true HD but still eminently playable. Texture detail defaulted to high, effect detail to medium, and shader detail to low with no AA.
The sound effects in the L4D series are pretty good, especially where the special Infected are concerned. As noted earlier, each type makes its own set of sounds and all of them are at least disturbing if not outright frightening. My personal favorite is the Spitter, but all of them spell trouble headed your way.
A special nod goes to the AI in the L4D series. Valve calls this protocol the Director, and it takes into account a number of factors, including the rapidity (or lack thereof) of a group’s progress on a map, a player’s skill level, remaining ammo, etc. and even heightens the stress level of players by cueing sound effects, visual effects and AI Survivor communication.
The Director’s primary duty is the spawning of common and special Infected. To help replay value, spawn points for Infected are random, assuring a fresh experience each time. Common enemies are divided into two types, Wanderers and Mobs. Wanderers are spawned in front of or to the side of the team’s progress. They will attack the team as soon as their aggro radius is breached. Mobs attack in groups of 10 or more, are spawned to the side or behind the group, and immediately move toward the group at top speed to attack. Mob attacks occur at least every four minutes, and more often if the group is moving forward rapidly. If the Director cannot spawn a Mob due to the group’s location, it will queue these attacks and launch a super mob when the group has moved into an area that allows spawning.
Special Infected spawn randomly near the group. These Infected are “smarter” than the normal adversaries. Because their special attacks need to recharge after they are used (some follow a timer, other Specials can use theirs immediately after successfully attacking a Survivor), the Special Infected will back off and move to a location where they can’t be killed by players, often shadowing the team until their attack is available again and then moving to strike.
Witches and Tanks follow their own spawn rules. In any map, these types can only spawn in certain areas. Depending on random probability, players may encounter neither, one or both of these hostiles in the spawn areas.
Special Infected, including the Tank and Witch, can spawn inside the safe room at the end of each map, effectively locked in until the unsuspecting team opens the door.
Aside from the rules above, some maps feature Events which occur when the group reaches a specific map location. And the campaigns typically feature Finales- huge fights against hordes of common and special Infected. Usually, but not always, the team is provided with a stronghold and often large, heavy, stationary weapons they can use to atomize large number of Infected.
The AI for Survivors is less complex, unfortunately. AI team members often flake out at crucial moments, and sometimes their priorities are skewed, meaning you may be strangled to death waiting for help when a human player would be johnny (or janey) on the spot. Its clear Valve intended this game to provide the best experience when humans group up to confront the Infected. And that’s OK- with a thriving online community and plenty of players online, even this long after release, you’ll never be lacking for human teammates.
The L4D series impressed me from the first time I played it. It definitely stands out among FPS games in general, and the zombie sub-genre in particular which has become overcrowded with mediocre titles. I especially like the fact that the game emphasizes teamwork and rewards sound tactics. Also, I enjoy the fact that even with good players at your side, the game can always throw you a curve ball, that perfect storm of map variables, enemy spawns and pure bad luck that spells disaster.
These are games that don’t necessarily frustrate me when I lose. They have a way of planting the boot in your ribs at the perfect moment. Coming from someone who generally lists FPS games as pretty low on my favorites list, I can heartily recommend these games to anyone who doesn’t own them. I got both on sale at Steam for $30, but I think they are regularly available for $20 each. For that price you get tons of Valve content, a huge amount of modder work, and a game that promises a unique experience each time, even if the map is very familiar.
Take the M rating seriously- language is strong throughout and the violence reaches an almost unbelievable but incredibly satisfying level.
I’m giving these two gems 8 out of 10, the only quibbles being weak Survivor AI and slightly dated-looking graphics.
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