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RPS-ish At-ish E3: Day 2, Part 1 - Valve

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Two things were delightful about dropping by Valve’s meeting room today. First was the chance to (finally!) get some hands-on time with Left 4 Dead, and the other was that I got to play it with Chet Faliszek, who you may know (should know) as one of the men behind Old Man Murray. Thankfully he was so nice (graciously accepting my stuttering adulation) that I didn’t have the heart to bring up that the start to crate time for Left 4 Dead was literally zero.*

Of course, who cares? It’s an FPS with zombies! So I can live with the crates. The word on the internet, I’ve seen, is similarly unconcerned about crates but deeply unimpressed by the redesigned characters, with people by and large disliking them. I’m going to disagree with this and say I absolutely love them.

Particularly the girl, who has improved a thousand fold. I think I like her more now than Alyx! It’s probably because we’ve both got the same American Apparel track jacket in cranberry. I bought mine, where I imagine she scavenged hers from a store overrun with horrifying hipster zombies.

Anyway. I went as said girl, natch. Characters don’t have any individual traits – it’s going to be up to each group to create their own roles as they play – and I instantly fell into the role of the “mentalist who runs directly at the zombies with a shotgun blazing” while the rest of my team stuck to the far safer “stick together and use automatic weapons.”

Of course, fortune favours the bold, and while my team mates managed to shoot me in the back more than I would have liked (and the friendly fire is a constant, and very real, danger) there was more than enough glorious gibbage to make it all worthwhile. It’s nearly as fun as Dead Rising, and for any pedants who want to note that I said gore was passé yesterday, well, that never counts for zombies. I’ll let zombies away with anything (I forgave Dead Rising its save system, for one.)

We played one of the early scenarios from Left 4 Dead where our team was attempting to get to a hospital in order to get airlifted out of the city, and Chet let me know that the chapters will form a progressive gameplay narrative (so they’re more meaningful played in order.) Levels seem cleverly designed, as although you’re forced down a mostly linear “path” to the exit, each location has enough entrances and exits (and ways to approach) there are a variety of ways to experience the path. In fact, I was surprised that I found my team so naturally managing to progress steadily towards our goal without ever hitting dead ends, getting confused or feeling constrained by the level design. It just works.

We managed to fight our way through several buildings, both residential and office (and at least once warehouse) with one location (some kind of factory, I guess) highlighting the rhythm of the game – moments of calm followed by shocking and overwhelming violence from the unstoppable zombie hordes – as the game gave warning that once we opened the next door we would be attacked from all sides. My gung ho tendencies found me manning a nearby minigun (tremendously satisfying) even though my team mates (Chet included, sadly) managed to completely forget to cover my exposed back.

Repeatedly nibbled on and finally vomited upon (which sends all local zombies insane and on a straight beeline for you) I barely managed to survive to the next section with the help of a few molotov cocktails, which formed a flame barrier the zombies weren’t too keen on. In the next section, unfortunately, my urge to force onwards (no reason to hang around in zombietown) led to my ignoble death being pounded against a wall by a Tank zombie in a room miles away from help.

So it goes.

What I saw of Left 4 Dead was superb – weapons are meaty, movement smooth, locations are fun and the zombies are terrifying – but it is of course what I didn’t see that still holds the key to the future success of the title. How fun is it really gong to be with AI or a bunch of randoms on the internet? How fun is it to play as the infected (or against player controlled infected)? And how much is the dynamic difficulty is going to change the game each time?

Still, at least my early, early reservations about the decision to use fast zombies (I hated 28 Days Later) are now completely gone. They work brilliantly, forcing the team to work together in a way (I suspect) slow zombies wouldn’t.

And I got to meet Chet, too. Yay! (Stop it, Kumar. – Ed)

*I am completely aware that referencing Start to Crate when talking about Old Man Murray alumni is unbelievably trite. And yet I couldn’t resist. Forgive me.

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Mathew Kumar

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