Eight Hands-on: Left 4 Dead Impressions

By RPS on November 4th, 2008 at 5:02 pm.

They really don't understand personal space.

We have killed so many zombies in a single day that it seems improbable, even impossible: over 11,000. We are, of course, playing Left 4 Dead. Beneath the cut we have the first-impressions of each of the four RPS editors. It’s been a long, noisy day of gaming. When we close our eyes, all we can see are burning zombies.

Sorry about your brain there.

John: One of the most important features of Left 4 Dead is the necessity that it be interesting to play repeated times. Despite a single play through of all four campaigns lasting about as long as the average console shooter, that’s not how it’s intended to be played. You’re meant to keep coming back, charging through each zombie-infested level again and again, in the company of your buddies.

So having had the chance to play through Blood Harvest and No Mercy before, going back to them gave me an important perspective. Despite there being certain key moments in each level, it wasn’t the same game again. And playing with different people (and in the case of playing with RPS, very different people) makes it a very different time.

I think that was possibly my big concern with Left 4 Dead, and it seems to have been taken care of. The Director, the omniscient controller of what happens in the game, seems genuinely capable of mixing things up in such a way that you can’t make cohesive plans. Which is exactly how it should be – this is a zombie apocalypse, and being able to predict events would spoil it. Not knowing if crossing a certain bridge spells certain doom, or a casual walk through the pretty countryside, amps up the tension.

There’s still those bottleneck moments when you can not only expect a brutal attack, but form rudimentary plans for dealing with them. Turning the difficulty up on Blood Harvest, the rural campaign setting finishing with a terrifying enslaught on a farmhouse, we struggled big time. With repeated attempts, we formulated multiple plans to get through it, which went from simple variations such as how to arrange ourselves on the lower floor of the building and when to retreat to upstairs (imagine a building with the frighteningly fast undead coming in through every door and window, climbing the sides of the building, attacking you from every angle), all the way to hiding in the large barn on the farm grounds, in the hope it might be easier to defend. (It wasn’t).

What stands out the strongest for me, and I think is even more significant than the variation the Director offers, is the people you play with. I know Kieron, Jim and Alec pretty well. We spend an improbable amount of time in each other’s company. We know each other well enough to insult each other’s mothers while looking out for each other. It’s ideal company for such a game. You really can’t do anything on your own, and the moment you do, you’re screwed. I became quite frustrated with Jim at one point for charging off on his own, and then having to shoot Hunters off him after he got himself pinned down before everyone was finished healing up, or whatever. (I’ll add here that I’m far more irritating to play with than Jim, for all manner of reasons). Later on, after a few more hours of play, Jim said, “I’m starting to get anxiety whenever I’m away from the group!” That’s really it. You’re a team of four, and you must think that way.

Three of the “special” zombies – the Boomer (giant fatty who vomits on you, and explodes when shot), the Hunter (incredibly fast and vicious, able to leap huge distances and pin you to the ground), and the Smoker (his metres-long tongue snatches you from the pack and drags you away) – all emphasise the necessity for only teamwork. Each incapacitates you, rendering you helpless, utterly dependent upon your team. None are difficult to kill when not being attacked by them, so you must constantly look out for each other, having each other’s backs.

Blimey, it’s a lot of fun. And we’ve yet to touch the Versus mode. Last night, as soon as I shut my eyes, I saw dozens of zombies clambering over fences, up buildings, and rushing toward me. I dreamt exclusively of zombies. And today I’ll be mostly fighting zombies. Zombies. Brain gone. Zombies.

They just want a hug.

Jim: I’ve always been keen to place multiplayer games above single player games. For every compelling, isolated drama I experience with solo-gaming, it seems like I have a dozen more anecdote-worthy incidents when other human brains are involved in the ludic mix. Those pink apes that live all around us are excellent allies and opponents in our imaginary exploits. However, and I’ve yammered unwholesomely about this elsewhere, it’s often great to be able to share co-operative adventures with your chums, and Left4Dead is one such playground for partnership. The entire game is bent on co-operation: you must save your chums, and stay close, so that they might save you. Alone, you die. That alone sets it apart and, for me at least, pops it on a little pedestal. It’s doing the kind of stuff I really value in gaming.

My main concern for L4D is that people still don’t seem to quite know what the game is about. You assume you know what a zombie game means, and then you play this… The demo should abolish that, of course, and I expect there to be a clamouring of exploded expectations in its wake. Left 4 Dead is remarkably immediate and familiar, and yet distinctly unlike other games. There’s a whiff of Half-Life’s greatest mods to it, which I guess is hardly surprising when you see the people that Valve now employ. That whiff is a taste of the meme-pool of experienced PC gamers who are building the kinds of games that extrapolate from our FPS heritage. I know it works a blinder on Xbox too, but this feels and smells like a profoundly PC game.

That said, I’m finding it tough to draw useful parallels with other game experiences. It is, of course, nothing like any other classic zombie game out there. It’s survival horror without being anything like other games that are so toe-tagged. And the replayed, randomised nature of the four hour-or-so maps mean that it’s also nothing like other FPS games. It’s reminding me, ever so faintly, of Hired Guns – that proto-FPS of the Dungeon Master ilk – four characters against the horrors. Only I never managed to get more than two people around a game of that. This time we are faced with the absolute ideal situation of having the four RPS editors all playing together in the same room. John really does squeal when the badguys come.

The most enjoyable aspect of all this, so far, has been the capacity for the game to go terrifyinglu wayward. You think you’re handling the zombie horde and then suddenly a molotov is thrown, or a cannister explodes, and everything is swathed in flame. Or someone is caught by the lasso-tongued smoker zombie and dragged off to their doom as the survivors flail about in panic. Or a witch is startled and sent screaming towards us. Or… well, you’ll get the idea soon enough.

The Witches really are terrifying.

Kieron: Stupid things first: It was only when the game was starting did I realise the “4” in Left 4 dead wasn’t just Nothing Compares 2 U-isms, but a reference to the four players. One of the smartest voices in games journalism, me.

More stupid things second: BAMBAMBAMBAM!

That’s the thing with Left 4 Dead. There really is a lot of shooting. I mean, you play most of the four-player co-op things that are around, and it’s really just the standard modern approach to the genre. As in, the fights are about 2:1 odds in their favour at the best, and it’s based around choosing your shots and similar.

Left 4 Dead isn’t like that. The thing I’d immediately reach for is the original Doom – as in, it’s a horror action game with the tension interrupted with moments of ludicrous intensity. Or – more accurately – the ludicrous intensity interrupted with moments of tension. Alec’s response to the game – re-naming his character BAMBAMBAMBAM! is the correct and measured response.

It’s also like Doom in other ways bar its sheer aggression – it’s based around a small yet iconic cast of characters. Within the first hour, we’d got a handle on all of the bad guys and learned the correct response – in my case, swearing profusely when half of them even slightly appear and calling the Boomers Fatties much to John’s disgust. But there’s more subtlety going on than you may expect – when you get the scores at the end of each section, I tended to top the amount of damage to Tanks by a large margin. That’s because I think I’ve worked out a way to actually hurt them which others haven’t quite got yet… but I’m not going to spoil you. Yet, anyway.

(The Tanks provide some of the game’s most hilarious elements of Drama. Alec lobbing a Molotov cocktail at one when he’s in a small room with us, leading to in a fiery deathtrap with eight tons of angry muscle. Similarly later, when I’m last man standing, with a single health point and trying to take one down with a pistol. And then there’s the Witches and…)

Okay – the way which it isn’t like Doom is what pleases me most. That it’s not a Doom Tribute – it’s a thoroughly modern game. When I first played Left 4 Dead almost two years back, I was the person least impressed I knew – I thought it felt kind of retro. Elements like climbing ladders didn’t seem to have proper animation on them and it was basically just people running at you.

Not true anymore. Or, at least, not true any more in any way which matters. The standard infected run is totally a next-generation futurist run. There’s a sense of momentum to them which I haven’t seen in the medium before – it’s best shown when they manage to flank you, and a half dozen burst from the tree-line en masse. Their run animation is particularly a marvel – catching one when they run in a parabolic arc, curving towards you is totally convincing. Seeing them clamber. Seeing them – best of all – get shot, with you catching a limb and them tumbling, their mass and speed carrying them onwards.

(Note to all: At least on normal, you can’t beat the autoshotgun.)

But the key element which makes this more progressive than you think is the Director, which – especially as you amp up the difficulty – manages to capture in a fluid way essential parts of the genre. Over breakfast yesterday – before playing – we were talking about different takes on the zombie game that we’d like to see. One which didn’t come up is one which Left 4 Dead grasps completely – its inherent perverseness. Now, it’s a constant internet thing to discuss what you’d do in a Zombie Invasion, the implication being that you’re smarter than anyone else. Which is fine… but that’s not how the genre works. The genre is based on that response, and proving it to be hubris. So doing really sensible yet boring actions is going to get you killed. Push on to reach the next safe room at all costs. Because frankly, going back at any time is just going to get the director angry with you. One section when we found ourselves stuck, we sent on one person ahead to gather a mob, with all three of us on a high place where they won’t be able to reach us easily.

This is when the Director decides to send the wave of undead from behind us.

Which isn’t saying there isn’t any way to play well. But your plans will go wrong drastically, and you’ll be forced to improvise – by which I mean screaming BAMBAMBAMBAM! a lot while running around. At least at this initial play, anyway.

So – very excited by it. Looking forward to going back and playing Versus mode and seeing how it holds up single player today.

(I’m thinking the other comparison I’d make to it is actually old Bitmap’s classic The Chaos Engine – when a player drops out, the seamless taking over by the computer works terrbly well. When I did , the rest of RPS decided they’d rather have the computer along rather than me. The Bast!)

You will also spend more than your usual your time swearing at friends. As is only right. It is a Zombie game, after all.

Heads go pop! BAMBAMBAMBAM!

Alec: It began with jokes and with songs. There have been a lot of songs during our time in Seattle, the manic result of too little sleep and too much booze. But, y’know, we really shouldn’t have been singing in the midst of a zombie invasion.

The singing stopped when we pushed the difficulty up a notch, convinced that we were absolute masters of Normal Mode. Despite Director’s uncanny magic, I’d been a little concerned as to L4D’s replayability. The difficulty is as important to squeezing new (un)life out of familiar maps as is the random-o-matic element. Suddenly, we weren’t The Disharmonious Beatles stumbling through zany adventures with a smile on our faces and a song in our heart, but we were the self-interested, short-tempered cast of Night of The Living Dead and so many of its successors. That is to say, we weren’t friendly. We didn’t trust each other, we swore at each other, we blamed one another for everything from getting in the way to using a less appropriate weapon to stealing health packs. We were working together out of necessity, not amicability. No singing, and not even much BAMBAMBAMBAM.

The thing with the difficulty isn’t so much that it drops more zombies onto you – I’m not even sure it does – or even that their hitpoints go up, but more that the Special enemies are far more frequent. L4D has, outside of common or garden high-speed deaders:

Fat Blokes – Boomers, explodey and vomity meatsacks. Players caught in the blast/vomit radius become a great big beacon for a huge, bonus of wave of zombies

Tongue Blokes – Smokers, whose enormous mouth-snakes can grab a player from a good forty metres away, rendering him helpless until his mates save him

Fast Blokes (the hyper-fast, pouncing Hunters, who’ll pin a player to the ground, again until a chum intervenes

Creepy Singing Ladies – Witches, who remain motionless until disturbed by light, noise or an errant gunshot. Their eerie song and simultaneous sobbing are by far the most terrifying thing in the game. Upon waking up, they’re a whirling dervish of destruction. Fight every instinct to shoot the apparently frail things and sneak around them.

C*nts – the enormous, heavily armoured Tanks, who you can hear stomping towards you from about half a mile away. On Normal, they’ll fall over before they do too much damage. On Advanced, their hitpoints are such that we’d always be three men down and the last backed into a corner desperately letting off pistol shots within moments of encountering one. A Tank is the shortest route to an endgame situation.

Well, apart from one thing. In Normal you tend to encounter only one of these a time, and they weren’t too harrowing. In Advanced, we’d regularly hit situations such as someone being dragged off by a Tongue Bloke, his theoretical rescuer finding himself floored by a Fast Bloke, and the other two fending off 60 zombies that had just turned up as a result of a Fat Bloke being sick on them. Facing multiple specials at once is high trauma and a monstrous challenge – and one, interestingly, that I think can only be mastered to a certain extent. Being a master of the headshot is one thing, but the tactical thinking, reflex and pure luck necessary to stay alive in the face of genuinely overwhelming odds is another.

There is another difficulty level yet. And that’s my challenge for, probably, the rest of the year. Right now, I can’t even imagine beating it. Dear God but I intend to try, however.

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116 Comments »

  1. subedii says:

    Just two more days (+ Valve Time) and I can finally try this for myself. It feels like it had an even longer buildup than this years presidential election.

  2. Pags says:

    What’s the killcount on zombies? IT’S OVER NINE THOUSAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND.

  3. Fumarole says:

    So the zombies have eaten all your brains. Excellent. Thursday cannot come fast enough.

  4. Captain Captain says:

    Its to expensive. Maybe I buy it later when the price is lower, I already got Far Cry 2, Fallout 3 and Red Alert 3. That will last a while. Except for FC2 of course, that got boring only after a few hours.

  5. Theoban says:

    This sounds absolutely fantastic. And the Director sounds like a marvellous piece of programming.

  6. teo says:

    I hope I can get all my CS buddies to try this

  7. Lu-Tze says:

    Psyched. This is going to make for some awesome office swearing post-lunchtime.

  8. cowless says:

    Did you try exploiting the director in other ways? Waste all your ammo missing zombies at the beginning of the level (or, perhaps, right before an ammo point) and see if it lets you walk through unmolested.

    Can you set the difficulty level in games where humans play infected?

  9. Downloads_Plz says:

    Sounds amazing, but the one thing that concerns me which even hands on time probably couldn’t answer is how much fun will it be playing across the internet with complete strangers?

    Playing with 3 of your best buds would obviously be the best way to experience this, but as the majority of my friends are losers who don’t play video games (or is it the other way around…), I’m still not convinced how much fun I personally would have with it.

  10. cowless says:

    Also: is there a save system?

  11. gaijin says:

    i might have to finally ditch my hypothesis that the undead enemies in any game will invariably be the worst (yes, flood, I’m looking at you (no, not you, Flood the legendary rock producer)). Not that there *are* any other enemies in this so technically… but my contention that zombies are only a way to disguise lazy AI (“they’re supposed to shuffle directly towards you not caring that they get shot!”) sounds like it can now be laid to rest. In some ways the Director sounds like the most interesting element.

  12. Traced-Velocity says:

    7 days until the public demo… Gonna be hard to wait. Thanks for the great impressions- Funny and informative.

  13. Jahkaivah says:

    “60 Zombies”?… Is that hyperbolic or….?

  14. RichPowers says:

    I wonder if Valve will license The Director like they do the Source Engine.

    Maybe Valve upped the ante with the running physics to silence all the people who incessantly bitched about running zombies :)

    In your opinion, will the game offer as much replay as Team Fortress 2? I’ve sunk 100+ hours into TF2 since release…it’s displaced the other online games I played.

  15. Deadpan says:

    I can’t wait to kill me some Zombies.
    Lots of zombies.
    The Zombie Steam Locomotive is pulling into Holy Fuck Station.
    Hoo-ah!

  16. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    Two more days. Two more days. Two more days.

  17. cyrenic says:

    Any U.S. time zone players interested in playing with other U.S. time zone RPS’ers check out this thread: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/forum/pc/the-l4d-early-adopters-coordination-thread/page-1/

  18. Nero says:

    Great impressions. Man I can’t wait to try out the demo.

  19. Stupoider says:

    I’m dieing to play this.. TWO MORE DAYS! TWOOO MORE DAAAYS!

  20. Lewis says:

    excitement building! my pre-order buyer`s remorse is lessening all the time. now i just need to convince my friends it`s worth $50….

  21. Gladman says:

    Didn’t consider that till Kieron pointed it out (4).

    Can anyone tell us exactly WHAT is on the demo? Single level? Single game mode?

  22. Grandstone says:

    As usual, I just want to know if I can run it at a decent speed. I am so pumped for this game’s release that if I can’t run it I’ll probably be seeing if I can upgrade my laptop. November 11th can’t come fast enough.

  23. Ergates says:

    Do want.

  24. Jahkaivah says:

    @Gladman

    I believe it consists the first two maps of No mercy (down the building along the street, then through the subway and trains, god I have seen too many gameplay videos).

    The modes consist of single player (you and survivor bots vs zombies and boss bots) and co-op (you and online players vs zombies and boss bots). Versus mode (where you can play as boss zombies) isn’t available.

    Not sure about difficulty caps, given what this article says I pray we can play higher than normal which is the lowest difficulty.

  25. Down Rodeo says:

    Ah, this makes me want. So badly. I have exams, Valve! They’re so inconsiderate.

    Also, nice writeup.

  26. Five says:

    I’m not preordering it from Steam because it will be cheaper in the shops.

    But nothing’s going to stop me buying it on release date :)

  27. TooNu says:

    Too moar daez!
    I really can’t wait for this game, I have a box of Huggies all ready

  28. lol says:

    Releasing the demo 5 days earlier to those who preordered is so annoying. Doesn’t it make more sense to entice those people who haven’t already bought the game?

  29. Radiant says:

    I thoroughly intend to pick this up on the 360.
    Just so I can have a chance to play it with the full 4 players if only on split screen.
    On Pc I don’t think I could get 4 mates on a gaming quality pc [ie not playing using the touchpad on their laptop] together at the same time.
    And lord knows I don’t want to play it with the great unwashed that is the internet.
    Actually is this coming on the PS3? That’ll give me a reason to dust off that behemoth.

  30. EyeMessiah says:

    IM UNEMPLOYED AND HAVE ALREADY PAID FOR L4D.

    1-0

  31. klo8 says:

    There is no release for the PS3, at least not now. (20th of November, when the 360 and PC ones are released) Could be that there is going to be one in the future, though.

  32. kafka7 says:

    Anyone in London seen the huge L4D billboard on the side of the Astoria theatre at Tottenham Court Road? Just thought it was so cool that a prime ad position has gone to a PC game. Go Valve!

  33. M_the_C says:

    @lol It’s an incentive for more people to pre-order.

    I’ll definitely be playing this demo.

    Still don’t know if I will like the game so I’ll wait.

  34. Youatemycheeto says:

    @Radient

    I’ve heard varying things about being able to play it split screen on the 360. I’m sure that you can’t play 4-players on the same box, but you might not even be able to play with 2.

    http://multiplayerblog.mtv.com/2008/10/16/left-4-dead-co-op/

    @Captain Captain

    I’m not sure that I understand why people are saying that it’s too expensive. To what are you comparing it? All the games you just mentioned are full price games. If you just play through L4D once on single player it’s supposed to last you about 9ish hours (so I hear), which is more than CoD4, GoW, and any number of other extremely well-received games. But importantly, this game is heavily based in co-op and is designed to be played multiple times (as the authors of this article stress).

    That being said, if you do not think that $50 (or however many pounds) is too much for any game, then it hardly seems like L4D is overpriced.

  35. Rei Onryou says:

    The suspense is unbearable, but these Valve updates are really helping. Cheers RPS! It’d be worth you guys trying to play from different rooms using mics (if Valve lets you) so we can find out if its as good WAN as it is LAN.

  36. Tei says:

    Nice prereview RPS. And nice game Valve. Again /hat

    Now.. I am happy. And I feel I have to use more of my credit card… that is a bad thing, because I just buyed Fallout 3.

    I have a love/hate relation with zombie games. First: I am bored at slow zombies, Second: Fast infested guys make me nervous in a bad way. Third: The boring, and the nervous mix, I feel bored and stressed in a bad way. People sould PAY ME to play his zombies games. I will make a exception to Fallout 3 and L4D, because seems very good games, but this will be a exception.

    There are more exceptions.. I love to play as a zombie. I like to play as a alien, or fiend (the Quake1 mod where you impersonate a fiend) … theres something really fun on playing a character that move ridiculous fast and is a deadly mele fighter against poor bastard with tiny firearms. I hope this L4D thing has this zombie thing where you can be the zombie.

    What is that The Director thing? looks like something usefull??humm??? …

  37. cyrenic says:

    @Youatemycheeto

    There’s 2 player split screen on the Xbox:

    http://www.left4dead411.com/news/2008/10/l4d-versus-split-screen-videos/

  38. Charlie says:

    What about 2 player split screen on PC? Could I have my mate playing with me on a 360 controller?

  39. Tarn says:

    Regarding whether it’s fun to play with strangers…my time on it at the Eurogamer Expo suggested it probably will be. It’s so focused on helping each other out that there’s really no point in deliberately playing like an arse – unlike in, say, Counterstrike, Battlefield etc when it’s all a bit more frivolous.

    Even though I was playing with 3 guys I’d never spoken to, there was still an instant feeling of camaraderie – even after I shot them in the arse repeatedly due to having to use a 360 pad.

  40. Kadayi says:

    Didn’t realise the pre-order beta started this week. Sweet. Nice write up as well gents. Try and nab some EP3 titbits/screenies, that would be an ace scoop. ;)

  41. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Sounds amazing, but the one thing that concerns me which even hands on time probably couldn’t answer is how much fun will it be playing across the internet with complete strangers?”

    That’s my worry too. I may well end up buying it on 360 too, simply because that’s what my friends play on (other than strategy games, and even then that’s only a couple).

  42. Lobster says:

    The great thing about the director is it not only controls the enemies, but also dynamicly controls post effects, the bass and pitch of sound and music to forbode coming attacks, or increase the tension during combat, it also controls the type and frequency of items you find along the way, aswell as the speech of the characters.

  43. Erlam says:

    I’m really, really looking forward to this. Trying to get a ‘four man’ together as we speak. So far, there’s me and my girlfriend. Hopefully I’ll convince others to get the game (and one to upgrade his computer to this decade.

  44. Jahkaivah says:

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=nximeolOJcs&fmt=18

    How often can I expect attacks like the one at 2:00? :D

  45. Kieron Gillen says:

    All the bloody time.

    KG

  46. Jahkaivah says:

    Yay!

  47. Plopsworth says:

    Could anyone confirm if the split-screen multiplayer made it to the PC version?

    That’s one particular feature I was looking forward to, having enjoyed the split-screen co-op (on the PC no-less) for Kane & Lynch, and also Serious Sam. This could even be girlfriend compatible, we have enjoyed quite a few co-op Metal Slug sessions.

  48. l4dfanatic says:

    Don’t forget we get our keys tomorrow!!! (whoever preordered on gamestop)!!!!

    Then thursday is the day I will drop out of school ;]

  49. Fazer says:

    I posted about you on the official L4D forum – http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=743299

    We have to spread the disease :->

  50. Fazer says:

    Plopsworth – no split-screen on PC. Only Xbox 360.