Playing as the infected and coordinating with your team as you try and stop the survivors from reaching the safe room is just as fun and fleshed-out as playing as the survivors.
True cooperative games have become a thing of the past, a relic of the 8 and 16-bit days. Playing Contra or Jackal with a buddy after school simply doesn't exist in the day and age of Xbox Live and big budget single player affairs.
But Left 4 Dead marks a zombie-like rise for the genre and is the best pure co-op game to be released in at least a decade.
Before even turning the game on, Left 4 Dead has a leg up on the competition. Developer Valve has a sterling track record, with the modern classic Half Life 2 and the Counter Strike series to their credit. They also know multiplayer, as Team Fortress 2 is one of the best multiplayer games on the market.
If Valve's involvement isn't enough, here's what you need to know about Left 4 Dead: It's a first person shooter. It's online. It has a heavy co-op element. It involves zombies (they're called the "infected," but they're zombies). Lots and lots of zombies. If that doesn't sound good to you, just stop reading now. There's no hope for you.
Left 4 Dead has Valve's unique sense of humor and the narrative style that gamers have come to expect after playing Portal and the aforementioned Team Fortress 2. The characters are horror film stereotypes, ranging from the grizzled old man to the tattooed biker. The game's chapters are presented as films -- complete with movie poster load screens with clever taglines. For example, "Dead Air"'s is: "Their flight has been delayed. Permanently."
This movie-like presentation ties into what is probably the game's greatest achievement -- the director A.I. The director is a fluid A.I. overlord who decides where, when and how many zombies will swarm the survivors. The phrase "no two games are alike" is completely appropriate here. I personally played the demo before even receiving the game for upwards of six hours, never feeling it was static. This changes the way the game is played, as strategy becomes more than "grab this item, memorize this enemy spawn point."
The director is also one heartless bastard. Sure, he'll let you rest for a moment after a wave of the sprinting infected (these are 28 Days Later infected, not shambling corpses), but this respite is brief. When it comes to the later levels of chapters or on the brutal expert difficulty, the director has no regard for human life.
While playing solo with three fairly competent A.I. partners is possible, it is not advisable. They simply suck the fun out of the game by sniping oncoming special infected or always being ready to heal you at the first sign of damage. Simply put, human imperfection and error is what makes playing the game such a joy. It's just more fun to scream at your friend to shoot the Hunter that's jumped on you than it is to have an A.I. controlled player nail said Hunter with a shotgun blast before you can even see it.
Another aspect that makes the difficulty easier to bear is how fun it is to shoot the hordes of infected. The FPS mechanics are as tight as can be, using the traditional right trigger to shoot, A to jump, left trigger to melee control scheme. Knocking back a group of five infected and proceeding to blast them with a shotgun as their blood splatters on the wall never gets old.
But just shooting regular old zombies could get old after a while. It's a good thing, then, that Left 4 Dead includes some special zombies that add another layer of strategy to combat. The Boomer pukes on the survivors, summoning his zombie brethren to attack the unfortunate soul to be covered in vomit. He'll also explode -- releasing his gastric juices -- if he's dispatched too close to the survivors.
The Hunter can leap through the air, incapacitating a player and doing damage as he thrashes about. Only a teammate can get this menace off of you. Smokers have a long tongue, which they use to pull members away from the group, doing slight damage as they strangle a player.
Left 4 Dead would have been a fantastic game if it were just this -- a four player co-op zombie game. But the addition of versus mode, where four players play as the special infected (minus the Witch and only rarely the Tank), puts the title in the "must-own" category.
Playing as the infected and coordinating with your team as you try and stop the survivors from reaching the safe room is just as fun and fleshed-out as playing as the survivors. More importantly, playing as the Infected is a totally different experience than playing as the survivors. You will rely on stealth and coordinated strikes as opposed to moving as one, trying to get to the end of the map. The detailed scoring system (which takes into account map progression, remaining health and how many of the survivors actually make it to the end) and alternating between infected and human to insure as even a match as possible, makes the versus mode one of the most unique and enjoyable multiplayer experiences you will play this year.
Any complaints with Left 4 Dead are the definition of niggling. There are only 10 weapons -- simply pistols, shotguns, rifles and explosives. There's no rocket launcher or flame thrower, but the weapons are balanced and add to the feeling that you're actually a zombie apocalypse survivor.
The four chapters of the game (with five levels each) can also be finished rather quickly, depending on difficulty. The default difficulty will be too easy for FPS veterans, while advanced feels about right. Expert is brutally tough, but also the most fun. The director A.I. ensures that players will be coming back again and again to these levels. This is strictly a multiplayer game, so length is of little concern.
There is just so much right about Left 4 Dead that these complaints are of little consequence. The A.I. -- friendly and not -- is sharp as a tack. The core game mechanics are fun and flawlessly designed. The maps are well-designed, varied and often scary. Versus mode and the ensuing multiplayer chaos are unmatched in today's market. The graphics are clean and the game suffers from no frame rate issues and little load times. For what it aspires to be, Left 4 Dead is nearly perfect.
Left 4 Dead is the most viscerally fun gaming experience I've had in years. Not since first playing Halo 2 has a shooter been so damn fun to play. You and your friends -- online or locally -- will be reduced to screaming eight-year-olds as that first infected horde tears you to shreds. Left 4 Dead is a reminder that video games can be just as fun to play now as they were when we were kids.