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Eight Hands-on: Left 4 Dead Impressions

Featured post 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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