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Reviewed Jan 30.2009 by Dave "!FT!Marauder" Kratky

Publisher Valve
Developer Valve
Genre Squad based first person shooter. (Mit Der Zombies!)
Requirements

Windows XP/Vista/Vista64, 3ghz processor, 1GB RAM for XP/2GB for Vista, 7.5GB HDD Space, 128MB ATI 9600 or Nvidia 6600 or higher video card.

We Recommend

Getting a zombie proof helmet, some extra ammo and start blasting away.

Test Machine

Intel E6850/2 gig Corsair Dominator DDR2-800/EVGA Geforce 9800 GTX 512mb video card/Creative Labs XI Platinum Soundcard/Windows XP Home

The Good

Wave after wave of zombie blasting goodness. The environments and graphics are excellent. Great ambiance. Best co-operative game ever, and since it's a Steam game the matchmaking is excellent.

The Bad Only four campaigns included at ship time, only two of them can be played in versus mode. No chainsaw. (*Sniff*)
Replay Value

Tons. The A.I. director is good at making each level's zombie and item placement pretty random. Playing at increasing levels of difficulty and trying to earn accomplishments adds to the reply value as well.

Cost

$50 USD



If I learned anything from years of zombie movies, the Evil Dead series and games like Parasite Eve and Alone in the Dark it's that eventually the world will be destroyed and the dead will rise from the streets to feed on the brains of the living. It's inevitable, and one must be prepared. Only the strong and crazy will survive. That's why I go through life every day stockpiling food, ammunition, garlic and of course gasoline for my various defensive chainsaws in my underground zombie proof bunker.

I've been reading previews for a while and various mentions of Valve's new action/horror shooter, Left4Dead, for quite some time and it's finally here. Ever want to star in your own zombie apocalypse movie or even better star as one of the zombies? Now's your chance.

Premise

There's a reason it's called a zombie apocalypse folks. It's the end of the world. It's two weeks after the first infection was reported and to quote Francis (The tattooed fellow in the screenshots) "Everyone other than us is either a zombie or an asshole." Yes it's an M rated game and not really one that's appropriate for the kiddies. There's lots of blood and a bit of cussin'. A group of four survivors has managed to hold out against the zombies. Join Bill, (old grumpy survivalist guy.) Francis, (Smart ass tattooed guy) Louis (the token black guy) and Zoey (the obligatory hot chick) as they fight their way though the mindless zombie hordes on four different missions. Play with the AI or with other players. Playing with other players is much, MUCH better. In fact I'm going to go out on a limb here and declare it to be the best co-operative shooter ever. Even better than Serious Sam or Quake 1 and as far as I'm concerned those two have held the crown up until this point.

Gameplay

The essence of Left4Dead's first person shooter gameplay is simple but it's Valve's masterful execution of the whole thing that makes it worth playing over and over. As one of a handful of survivors, make your way through zombie infested towns, cities and farmland to the safe houses (There's several stages to each campaign) and eventually to the waiting rescue at the end of the campaign. When you start a level you'll be able to pick up a health pack (which can be used on yourself or another survivor) and grab either a shotgun (Can't have a zombie apocalypse without a shotgun!) or an uzi submachine gun to compliment your default pistol, plus full magazines. You're going to want to conserve that ammunition as you make your way though the levels as ammo dumps (not to mention extra health packs or pills that temporarily boost your health) are few and far between. Spray and pray and you're soon going to find yourself relying on your pistol alone and that ain't good. Not good at all. You're also going to have some seriously annoyed teammates picking up the slack.

Gotta mention the match making at this point. One of the best things about Valve games is the Steam friends list. I've never seen another match making service that makes it so very simple to get into a game with or without some friends. Love it.

Steam Match making makes me a happy Marauder.


Hang Together or Hang Separately

In L4D lone players are dead players. Luckily you'll be able to see the other members of your team as ghostly outlines through the terrain if you get separated but wander too far away from your teammates and you're going to get swarmed or taken out by a super zombie and there'll be no one around to help your stupid lone gunman self out. It's remarkable how smoothly a game goes when you've got a team working well together and how poorly it goes when you're playing with asshats. There are keyboard shortcuts to issue commands to your team and an in game text chat but for things to really go well you're going to be using the built in voicecom. There just isn't time to type out that you need help when there's a zombie trying to eat your precious, precious brain. If a teammate gets knocked down (incapacitated) by an attack or falls over the edge of a precipice because they're clumsy another survivor will have to pick their sorry ass up before they're able to move again. When on the ground you'll only have your pistols to defend yourself and since you're dying your accuracy isn't the greatest. If you don't get your friends off the ground in time they'll die. It's interesting and a bit depressing to hear the remaining survivors bemoaning the loss of their companion but not to worry you'll find a replacement waiting for rescue in a closet or safe room somewhere up ahead. Open the door and your friend will respawn to continue the killing. The only exception to this is the final battle, where if you die you're dead until the next game starts.

Snagged by a Smoker zombie's tongue attack and beat on by his zombie minions. Don't go alone.


The game's difficulty level can be varied and damage from zombies and friendlies goes down in the lesser difficulty levels. At the lower levels of difficulty there are no headshots from friendly fire "incidents" and the finale stage will be much shorter. The final battle is a setpiece defense where you'll call for rescue then try to hold a position until the calvary arrives and gets you the hell out of dodge. It's pretty frantic trying to hold off wave after wave of attackers and boss zombies and it gets worse and worse as they chip away at you. I've had quite a few games where one or more players get incapacitated or killed at the last moment, often on the very ramp or deck of the rescue vehicle. The immersion level of Left4Dead becomes evident when one of your buddies gets pulled away at the last moment when you're already safe and you go charging back into the thick of things to save them without thinking about it... And it's just as obvious when you decide to just keep going while the zombies are feeding on them and you feel sort of badly afterwards.

Between levels you'll get a quick recap of what happened to each player. Most damage taken, most damage to the Tank, most infected killed etc, and at the end of the campaign you'll get movie style credits with more detailed information about the complete campaign and a nice little "in memory of" section for those who didn't make it, as well as a total zombie body count at the end.

Like Team Fortress 2 you'll also be able to achieve various accomplishments while playing the game. They don't do anything but it's very cool to do something heroic and get a little award for it. My personal favorite is the "Man vs. Tank" award for taking down a tank single handedly.


The Army of Darkness

Making your way through the game you'll encounter lone infected wandering, shuffling mindlessly about. In singles or small groups they don't present much of a problem although you'll often shoot one and have a pack come at you out of the bushes, but they do wear you down and chip away at your health and supplies as the campaign goes on. From time to time you'll be getting a horde coming at you which will contain dozens and dozens of zombies charging at you from different directions. In addition to the normal zombies there's a variety of "boss infected" which are essentially super zombies. In versus mode these special zombies are controlled by players (with the exception of the witch) which certainly adds to the challenge as they wait to ambush your team. The infected players will spawn as ghosts, move themselves to good positions and then spawn in to catch the survivors unaware. They're also able to use ladders that are only visible to them to get themselves into good positions and if they're out of position can respawn closer to the survivors with a click of their mouse button.

Boomer (Fatty) - They're fat, they make weird farting noises and if they get within range they'll unleash a spew of bile on your group which will then attract a horde of regular mindless infected and makes you smell funny to boot. If a Boomer is shot at close range the explosion will damage anyone near them so it's best to knock them away or take them out from a distance.

Hunter - Hunters are fast moving melee attackers, able to leap great distances and incapacitate humans. If a hunter gets on one of your teammates and starts ripping away at them you'd better knock it off or kill it quickly or you'll be short one human.

Smoker - An annoying infected when played by someone who knows what they're doing, the Smoker's long tongue can target survivors and pull them long distances, strangling them and making them helpless for it's melee attack or the attacks of lesser zombies.

Tank - At least once or twice during the main part of the campaign and a few times in the finale stage you're going to run into a tank. They're a massively muscled and armored zombie that can kill a survivor with a few swings and have a ranged stun as well. You're best to set this bad boy on fire with a molotov and get clear. He'll follow you right up and through buildings and destroy anything in his way. Tanks take a hell of a beating so the whole team will need to work together to bring them down.

Witch - The only boss infected that can't be player controlled, the witch can be heard crying long before you see her. Usually placed somewhere inconvenient you'll often have to try and kill her before she kills whoever startles her which doesn't take long at all. A very nasty zombie, she's best avoided if possible.

Now you know what Dorothy's nightmares look like.

Graphics/Environments

We all know that Source engine games have great graphics but Left4Dead definitely raises the bar for detailed environments and gameplay. Whether it's the amazing textures and facial features on character models or the superbly detailed environments and buildings the folks at Valve outdid themselves with the graphics and ambiance on this one. Setpiece scenes such as a spectacular plane crash near the climax of Dead Air and the crazy guy holed up in a church who summons the hordes during Death Toll really add to the already tense atmosphere of L4D. I'm a huge fan of scripted events and there aren't really that many big ones but when you see a good one it's quite memorable. It's not just the big stuff that makes the game memorable it's the little things like the zombie animations, the blood splattered on your screen from close range kills, the muzzle flash of your weapons lighting up the zombie hordes coming down the hallway towards you or a wall of zombies flailing their way through the pool of liquid gasoline you've set out for them. The environments are partially destructible as well with infected often coming through seemingly solid walls to get you or breaking down doors or barricaded windows in their search for your tender flesh. There's even leaves drifting on the wind. It's truly the small things that make life worth living, and make a world more realistic and believable.

Hmmm. Pretty!


The Four missions:

No Mercy - A trek through the streets, alleys and buildings of an infected city with the final standoff being on the helipad atop a hospital. Watch that first step, it's a doozy.

Death Toll - Make your way to the river and defend a dock and derelict house until the boat arrives to get you the hell out of there.

Blood harvest - Zombies zombies and tractors everywhere. Journey through forests and across farmland on your way to defend a deserted farmhouse against the hordes.

Dead Air - Travel through the city to the airport and a waiting transport plane. As you near the final battle at the airport there's a spectacular plane crash that's one of the high points of the game. Bravo Valve!


Sound and Music

Just like the graphics Left4Dead's music and sound effects are excellent. The music sets a nice creepy ambiance to your adventures with highs occurring during zombie horde rushes and encounters with tanks and witches. The music also gives an occasional little erie horror movie flourish that never fails to make me jump a little. The quality doesn't stop with the music. Characters talk to each other and keep up a running dialogue Francis' little running jokes, characters reassuring their buddies as they pick them up off the ground and mourning as they pass their friend's zombie mangled corpses. Gunshots in the distance, floorboards creaking, crows squawking in the bushes and fields and the sounds of the undead moaning and shuffling around all sound great.


Zombie Killing Weapons

You can't have a zombie apocalypse without weapons galore to kill said zombies now can you? You'll be fairly well equipped for the upcoming madness with a basic unlimited ammunition 1911 pistol and one of a variety of heavier arms. For starters there's an uzi submachine gun or pump shotgun. As you progress through the levels you'll acquire dual pistols, a semi-auto scoped hunting rifle, (It's a Mini-14, but I guess that Ruger wouldn't appreciate them calling it that.) an automatic shotgun and a M-16 assault rifle. I didn't have much use for the hunting rifle as I found that most of the engagement ranges are too short or the enemies coming at me too fast for it to be handy but some of the folks I've been playing with seem partial to grabbing it as soon as they can. It is good for long range headshots on witches but I find that using the M-16 and firing bursts works just as well on the majority of the undead out there. Any of the weapons can also be used as melee weapons with a right mouse button knocking enemies away from you. This is especially handy when you get caught by a rush in the middle of a reload, something which seems to happen quite often. All of the weapons have flashlights mounted on them which comes in handy (stupid Doom3) in the sometimes dark, tight areas of the game.

Ammunition for any of the guns can be gained by touching an ammunition dump or picking up a fresh weapon. As was mentioned above you'd better be calling your shots and conserving your ammunition or you'll soon be fending off hundreds of zombies with naught but curses and your pistols.

Scattered about the environment are various explosive weapons, both premade and makeshift. Molotov Cocktails engulf an area in flames and there's definitely something to be said for setting up a wall of fire in front of a wave of zombies and watching them burn. Make sure you're back far enough however or you're going to be taking fire damage and getting beat silly by flaming undead. Pipe bombs attract any nearby mindless zombies and it's great to throw one out at the start of a rush and watch the gibblets and bits go flying when a few dozen zombies get blown to smithereens. Propane tanks and gas cans make great improvised explosives and it's always a good idea to set some up prior to triggering the final stand offs on each campaign.

Nothing says fun like a gas can and zombies.


Bugs/Bad Stuff

At ship time there are only four campaigns with the game and only two of those can be played in versus modem. No single player versus mode to practice. It's often awkward when you're creating a lobby to connect to a low ping server as the game autoselects a server. It works quite well but we often find ourselves connected to servers across the world. It'd be nice to be able to filter servers by ping and location without having to enter console commands. Hopefully this is rectified in a future patch.

We experienced some difficulty remapping the game's voice communications away from it's default "C" config. I'm pretty partial to using caps lock personally and the game would map to this but it wouldn't work except when running in test mode. Very odd. In the end I just left it at "C" and got used to hitting that.

Not sure what's going on but the test system experiences random pauses while playing the game online. Haven't had the time to track down what's causing it. It's not common, but it's not just us with this problem.(Update Feb 22/09: Loaded the latest Nvidia drivers and the problem went again. Yay!)

Need a chainsaw. It feels weird not have a chainsaw to kill zombies with. :(


Conclusion

When I was reviewing Pyschonauts a few years ago I started the review off with this: "Is anyone else starting to get a little tired of shooters? As much as I truly do love putting bullets into generic Nazis, mutants, zombies, monsters or Islamic terrorists, it tends to get a little old sometimes." Valve has managed to take something that's a little old and tawdry and make it fresh and exciting again. It's not a game for everyone but if you like shooters and you've ever wanted to live through a zombie infested end of the world scenario without actually having undead monsters chewing on your leg it's for you... And if you've never wanted to do just that sort of thing there's something wrong with you and there's no hope for you when the inevitable apocalypse arrives. The rest of us will be well trained up and ready to survive, thanks to Valve. Get it. Now.

Thanks to Goshwin, R-Khan, Protocal, VA_Killer and Strika for helping with the killing for the making of this article. Tens of thousands of the undead were harmed in the process. People for the Ethical Treatment of the Reanimated are going to be pissed.

Please note that this review broke our offical record for uses of the word "apocalypse" in an article. The previous record was... none.


Overall Rating (5 frags outta 5)



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