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The 12 Games of Christmas: Left 4 Dead

Ah, look to the streets. Hordes shambling the streets, looking for last minute bargains. Why, it's almost enough to make you want to write some kind of satire where the consumers become monsters of some kind. But what kind of monsters?

For the eleventh game of Christmas, my true blog gave to me...

Eleven Zombies eating your braiiiiiiiiinnnnnn!

John: Here's a problem with all the games coming out at the end of the year. When it's time for the end-of-year round-ups, it hasn't been nearly long enough since you last wrote thousands of words about the game. But there is so very much to celebrate about L4D.

There's the pacing. We're all intimate friends with the Director now, and are aware quite how significant a step forward in game design he is. Apply the concept to single player games, and imagine the stories you could swap, and imagine how much more tempted you'd be to play the game again. Apply the concept to an MMO, and imagine how it could relieve the tedium. It's rather brilliant that an idea developed to try and recreate the ebb and flow that could be scripted into a single player game might end up giving back more than it ever reflected.

There's the storytelling. Obviously anyone who's played is familiar with the way you find your own story as you play, because it's four people working together against changing odds. Retelling that afterward is the cosily modern equivalent of the frightening posh group returning from the hunt. Except where the fox killed three of them, and the last one nearly fell out a helicopter. But there's also a lot more storytelling going on within the game that many are giving it credit for. I think people take writing on the wall for granted. It's hard to remember that most games have utter gibberish spammed on their walls, the same miserable comments repeated with the texture brush. Here unique and cunningly placed insight into a barely enunciated background story hint at horrors others have faced, and the potential of safety somewhere further along. They give you both hope and ill-portent. And of course there's hundreds of lines of dialogue. Often it's drowned out by voice chat, but ludicrously specific lines are written for ludicrously specific situations, that you'll likely only hear once in all the time you play. It all contributes to giving you enough pieces of the history to imagine your own informed version of events.

There's the speed. People like to argue about the speed zombies are supposed to move at, and I'm sure it would have been an interesting game (interesting mod?) for a much larger number of zombies who shuffle, but L4D's terror comes from the fluctuating speed. The downtime offered by the Director is only interesting because of the uptime between it. The terrifying speed of everything within means you are rarely able to catch your breath, and are so relieved on the odd occasion when you can.

There's the gore. This is an incredibly violent game. Like nothing Valve have made. The blood splatters in HL2 were always gross, but were somehow displayed with decorum. You wouldn't be afraid of your gran seeing you play HL2. Then the pharmaceutical cleanliness of Portal, and the Pixary-cuteness of TF2 (again, diluting the gore within), betray nothing of the all-out schlockfest Valve had planned for L4D. Heads and arms flying off, blood filling the floors and walls, bits exploding, screaming, bleeding corpses on fire... Marvellous stuff.

Oh, and there's the Witch.

Jim: What a fine game this turned out to be. Both a solid shooter, and an innovative one: it makes me wonder who will go on to copy and improve on this model, and how they will do it. I still don't think the lobby system works, but hey, Left 4 Dead provided me with more guffaws and giggles than any other game this year. It's a game that has a solid sense of crisis, not just in the setting, but in the mechanics: when things go to the wall, you really know it. The cascading panic of a collapsing survivor team is one of the finest things in gaming, and clawing it back from the brink feels better than almost any other gaming happenstance I can think of. Few games leave you feeling genuinely so beleaguered. And that feeds into the awesome zombie experience. I get a huge kick out of giving the survivors a really hard time. Focused griefing, if you will.

A few years ago I was absolutely wrapped up in Quake 3 Arena, and at the time I felt like multiplayer gaming in small teams like that would be around forever. Ultimately though I found myself growing bored and the scene growing stale. Perhaps it was because there simply weren't enough inventive games, or perhaps it because everyone seemed to gravitate towards Battlefield and Counter-Strike, two games I never really got on with. In the past year though, my unhappiness with the state of shooty multiplayer has been exploded, first with Team Fortress and then with Left 4 Dead. It's all down to a single company. Thanks, Valve. (We'll have a chat about Steam pricing malarkies in the New Year, eh?)

Valve's screenshot, not mine.

Kieron: It's odd to feel this one settle down into a space in my head. As in, I've got my one-line description - Gauntlet Meets Doom - which is both a fairly accurate description of the game and as strong a compliment as Splendid Orgasms meets Awesome Orgasms. But I don't feel the need to think about it more than that. Probably because I haven't played for a few weeks.

For me the key thing about Left 4 Dead is surprise. Not the shock of being pounced by some creature of the night and finding a couple of hundred pounds of flesh and claws tearing at your face, or the jerk as you're pulled back, wondering what's going on before realising that a coiled muscle tongue has wrapped around your extremities and is dragging away, or even that moment where you realise the woman in rags who's howling her heart out is starting to turn around... but actually the surprise that it was as compelling as it was. Co-op game with zombies? Yeah, the sort of thing you may get excited about. If you were 15. What price the future of games, yaddadyaddayadda.

But no. It's awesome, and not just because the spray of brains from a skull is one of the most beautiful things in the world. Valve's persistence that the linear first-person shooter can lead to fundamentally enormously divulging experiences is increasingly inspiring. Where others are pushing the genre towards what others have been doing elsewhere - Stalker and Far Cry 2, for example - Valve rather ask what else you can do within what may appear a limiting remit. And with every game, they've managed to show a new way to make corridors and pointing a weapon at people sing. TF2. Portal. Left 4 Dead. Some people get excited about the next Half-life - and that's understandable and great. What most excites me about Valve is the next thing I don't know about yet.

And the Witch. Yes.

Behind you.

Alec: Multiplayer games are still teetering on the brink of voice communication being necessary. Anyone who's even slightly hardcore will have considered it absolutely mandatory for a good decade or so of course, but I mean the average player who stumbles onto a random server. Left 4 Dead is the point it became necessary. Part of that is the planning - by the time you've typed OMG SMOKR you've been choked to death - but part of it is the mood.

L4D's greatest achievement is that it truly does realise the sort of dynamics we'd like to think we'd have in the event of a zombie invasion. Clearly, the reaction we would have is hiding in a corner, painting our pants brown and crying, but we like to think the absolute panic would reach such a crescendo that it clicked into some sort of adrenalised survival instinct. The Dawn of the Dead effect, essentially - we're all suddenly expert gunsmiths, but we're bickering like children and twitching in fear as we gun 'em down. That's where the voice comms really come in - half the messages that come through from your fellow survivors barely make any sense. "Oh god it's a oh there he get him where get hunter yeah thanksshit. Okay, who needs health?" The incoherency and the panic, but the simultaneous need to make everyone aware of what's happening to you is absolutely crucial to the atmosphere. It's nominally a co-op game, but in reality it's a survival game - and those gabbled half-sentences reveal that it's an incredibly successful one. The hands do the shooting, the mouth does the talking - and it's the two together that put us in a zombie apocalypse, rather than simply a shooting gallery.

In contrast to Team Fortress 2, which works because of the mechanics and the characterfulness of the class designs, L4D is in many ways a blank slate - a game that works so well thanks to the people in it. In what other multiplayer game, for instance, would a total dick joining your group add to the experience? He's not just an idiot or a griefer - he's some asshat that happens to have survived the end of the world, and you're forced to find a way to work with him. You might hate him to the pit of your soul - but isn't that pure zombie movie stuff?

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Left 4 Dead

Xbox 360, PC

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.