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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Game Review: Left 4 Dead

You can't signal perfection with a missing thumb.



The Good:
Distinctively-themed scenarios * Perfect mood and atmosphere * Adaptable enemy A.I. * Ingeniously-implemented elements that encourage true co-op play * Movie-esque presentation style

The Bad:
Inflexible friendly A.I. * Versus mode is unenjoyable * Lack of content

Co-op play has always been that special sauce that provides a game with an appetizing look and a wonderful taste. From Halo 3 to Gears of War 2 to Call of Duty: World at War, developers have been attempting to implement co-op play as a feature of their games. But every so often, there is a dichotomy between single-play and co-op play. Built upon the foundation of single-play, these games are merely administered a little tweak to their single-play formulas for the accommodation of co-op play. When you are engaged in co-op play, the game still feels very much like a single-play experience such that you remain an individualistic player, slaying only enemies which pose a direct threat to your survival. In fact, you could still very much progress through the entire game by yourself despite the fact that it’s a co-op experience the game is selling.

Valve dares challenge this videogame convention, with its latest creation, Left 4 Dead, serving as a testament to the ambitions of the developer. Left 4 Dead blurs this dichotomy between single-play and co-op play, threading into a school of ideas never once explored – a move that is as creative as it is bold. Fortunately, the result is quite simply an amazing gameplay experience that seamlessly blends the ‘single-player’ campaign mode and competitive multiplayer mode into an exclusively co-op experience. Being created in such a way that the survival of your team members is essential to your survival, Left 4 Dead will transform the way you play a shooter. This revolutionary gameplay mechanic is complemented by yet another handful of original, genre-defining and outstanding gameplay mechanics and components, making Left 4 Dead one of the few masterpieces to roll off from the conveyor belts of game development in recent memory.

The co-op play in question here is set in the familiar territory of a post-apocalyptic, zombie-overrun world. Left 4 Dead borrows heavily from the several Hollywood zombie flicks of the past decade, featuring both rural and urban environments that have either been torn asunder by the rampages of zombie hordes or abandoned to resemble a ghost town. All but 4 humans have been infected by the zombie-spawning virus and you will play as any one of these 4 humans, struggling through a series of 5 stages to arrive at the final zombie standoff and await rescue. At the end of every stage, there is a safehouse for your team to restock on weapons, ammo and medical supplies. There are 4 scenarios available for play in Left 4 Dead, with each consisting of the said 5 stages. Each scenario features a distinct theme: No Mercy and Dead Air are urban-themed scenarios, with the former requiring that your team fights its way through a hospital to arrive at a rooftop zombie standoff with a chopper as an escape conveyance and the later requesting that your team pushes its way through an airport with a final resistance against the zombies at the runway and with an aircraft as a mean of escape. Death Toll and Blood Harvest are rural-themed scenarios, with the former insisting that your team make it to the docks for a ship rescue and the later forcing your team to take refuge in a farmhouse before an armored vehicle arrives.

All in all, there’s a good variety of environments for zombie-tearing action, but with only 4 scenarios in the package, each lasting about an hour to complete, there’s not nearly as enough content as desired, but more on that later. Left 4 Dead’s accomplishment comes in the form of its competent translation of the mood and atmosphere of a top budget Hollywood zombie production to the gameplay itself. The objective of each stage isn’t to eliminate all the zombies, but rather, to survive – and that pretty much guarantees the dread and intensity of the gameplay. Just when you thought that you have cleared an area of any tangible threat, yet another wanton stream of zombies come scratching their way towards your team. Thanks to the adaptable nature of the intelligent A.I., a consummate pacing is sustained throughout each stage. What this means is that when you are going strong against the hordes of zombies, the system would attempt to overwhelm your team by hurling more zombies, while scaling back on the number of zombies and providing randomly-placed medical supplies and ammo when your team is not faring as well in the presence of the zombies. The result is a game that consistently keeps your team on its toes, maintaining the much-needed sense of hopelessness and desperation which accompany any imagined zombie invasion.

The said is complemented by the game’s skillful reproduction of the atmosphere needed to discourage the resistance of the survivors, yet motivate them to continue fighting when the circumstances call for it. The smattering of fires within each area and decrepit structures serve as reminders to the survivors that there is a seemingly lack of hope derived from constant resistance against the zombies, while the occasional love messages scrawled on walls and lighted areas do well to spur the survivors to continue fighting for the sake of humankind’s love and soulful presence. The strategic usage of other subtle elements contributes to the circumspectly created atmosphere as well. Every now and then, you will hear and see a wimping zombie (do zombies even cry, anyways?) lie motionless in one corner, wallowing in self-despair. At other times, you would be able to detect a zombie from afar just by catching its grunt. And when the zombies commence their attack, they roar, their faces tauted in agony and fear. The survivors, too, covey their emotions via facial expressions and behaviours so vivid that you would be able to tell how they are feeling without the aid of any spoken word. When a survivor is injured, he or she hobbles and his or her sight becomes relegated to a (vaguely blurred) black and white view. Put two and two together and what you get is a desolate world that is supposedly bereft of personality – reanimated to become one undead world that is living and breathing every moment – so much so that it doesn’t seem like you are playing the game, but rather, living the game.

The success of Left 4 Dead in the creation of such an immersive gameplay experience is unquestionable, but beyond it, there are 2 modes available for play, namely campaign mode and versus mode. As mentioned, campaign mode features 4 scenarios, with each consisting of 5 stages. More noteworthy, however, is the refreshingly unique brand of co-op play this game sells. In Left 4 Dead, the promotion of co-op play isn’t simply about the addition of more enemies or the increase of difficulty, but rather, the ability to work cohesively as a team, co-ordinate roles and responsibilities, and change tactics on the fly. You need your team members to survive and the game uses several methods to reinforce this notion: If you are snatched by the Smoker’s frog-like tongue, you’re going to need to the help from another survivor to free you. And if you are pounded by the Hunter, you’re also going to need to the help of another survivor to get it off you. While this brings the importance of co-op play to the frontline, I find it a tad irritating that if I am captured by these 2 special zombies, I must enlist the aid of other survivors to be able to escape. I prefer the more subtle implementations of co-op play: The Boomer spits vomit that distorts your view and spurs other zombies into a feeding frenzy, but the other survivors can help you keep other zombies at bay while you readjust your perspective. The Tank is the game’s version of The Incredible Hulk and would require the combination of all the power of the survivors to be taken down. In both ways, you’re not entirely incapacitated when you’re hit by the Boomer or Tank, but would need the aid of other survivors in order to live. Against groups of these marauding special zombies and the cannon fodder hordes of normal zombies that pour in every other conceivable direction, your team would need to learn how to distribute assault and defensive roles evenly among all team members and know when to change strategies and cover each other when the going gets tough.

It’s this co-op aspect of Left 4 Dead that brings into picture the capabilities of the friendly A.I. You could play with up to 3 other human players, but if there are not enough human players, the bots can offer to fill in the gaps. Needless to say, playing with at least one other human player is recommended as human players bring forth the dynamism and social aspect of co-op play. However, the bots do a moderately good job filling in the shoes of the human players as well. They are especially attentive of your status, healing you when you are low on health and quickly helping you up should you be incapacitated. Unlike human players, they are careful not to hit you with friendly fire too. But there remain a few quirks when playing with bots. For one, bots are uncooperative – it’s near impossible to co-ordinate attacks and defenses with them. Playing with bots also eliminates the ability to switch team strategies on the fly, making your team that much more vulnerable to the many unpredictable zombie attacks. During my time with Left 4 Dead, I encountered a few instances where a bot remained stuck in a particular location as well, though that issue has more to do with the bugs in the game rather than the modus operandi of the A.I.

The other mode available for play in the game is the versus mode. In this particular mode, one team human players control the survivors while the other, the zombies. If you are playing as the zombies, the game randomly assigns you to any of the 4 special zombie classes, namely Smoker, Hunter, Boomer and Tank. Each team of human players alternate between survivors and zombies after every round. Playing as the survivors in versus mode is pretty much the same as playing the survivors in campaign mode: Make it to the safehouse at the end of every stage and survive long enough to be rescued and your team wins. The onus is on the zombies to preclude the survivors from doing just that. For some reason, only No Mercy and Blood Harvest are compatible with versus mode.

Unlike campaign mode, versus mode just doesn’t cut the mustard where enjoyment is concerned. Admittedly, versus mode offers a distinctively different kind of experience from campaign mode IF you are playing as the zombies, but the ability to play as zombies is arguably also Left 4 Dead’s weakest link. As zombies are MUCH MUCH more fragile than survivors, requiring only a few bullets to be transformed into a meat fountain, there is a need for increased co-ordination in attacks. The smoker can sneak an unsuspecting survivor away from under the noses of his or her team. After the survivor has been captured, the boomer can vomit onto him or her, unleashing the other zombies onto him or her. It sounds easy and fun on paper, but in practice, playing as the zombies is plain painful and ridiculous. Team strategies and co-ordination of attacks there can be, but it takes only one other survivor with a sub-machine gun or rifle to single-handedly disable both the smoker and boomer with a few shots – and with still ample bullets to spare for the other wandering zombies.

The game addresses the vulnerability and fragility of the zombies by providing zombie-controlling human players with the capability to be respawned whenever they die, but even the respawn mechanism is handled almost too thoughtlessly. When a zombie dies, it gets respawned into a soul near the survivors. From there, it must thread back a certain distance away from the pack of survivors before its bodily form is returned. I can’t really comprehend the need for this utter inconvenience: Why couldn’t there be fixed respawn points throughout each map? What’s the point of being respawned as a soul near the survivors? Why can’t we be respawned directly into our bodily forms? Not only does this introduce inconvenience, but also disrupt the flow of the gameplay. Versus mode isn’t fun.

Regardless of which mode you play, however, the game employs a movie-esque presentation style which is a really nice touch. When each scenario is loading, a movie poster showing the cast members will be displayed. Upon completion of each scenario, the statistics would be announced in the form a credit roll. These statistics range healthily from the number of normal and special zombies killed by each survivor, to the amount of medical assistance each survivor administers to others, to the amount of friendly fire each survivor delivers. These statistics are supplemented by the ‘Zombies Killed in the Making of the Film’ count and if there are survivors who did not make it to the rescue point, an ‘In Loving Memory of’ line would roll. All these inconspicuous elements drive the game towards a fine cinematic production value – something that is very much in line with what the mood and atmosphere in the game has been trying to promote all along.

Final Comments
Left 4 Dead is unlike any other shooter you have played before. Merging an exclusively co-op experience with high production values to great effects, Left 4 Dead is one creative, bold, genre-defining and outstanding game. However, the unpliablity of the friendly A.I. and the unenjoyable versus mode get in the way to deny this game perfection. Another point that needs to be considered is the seemingly lack of content. With just 4 scenarios to experience, the game could get a little dull after quite a while. Granted, the unpredictable nature of multiplayer and the adaptable enemy A.I. do give this game extra fingers, but 4 scenarios can only accommodate that much amount of intrigue and interest before the game is left to gather dust on the bookshelf. There is no doubt that Left 4 Dead is worth checking out – but just be prepared to accept its palpable flaws.


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