When I first heard about Left 4 Dead I didn’t think it would be a game for me. Zombie survival? Please! I want to shoot Nazis and aliens! I’m the guy who loved all of the “realistic” missions in Return to Castle Wolfenstein but turned on “God mode” as soon as the lightning-launching Frankensteinien horrors showed up. Sure, I’ve played plenty of Half-Life in my day, but those things shambling toward Gordon Freeman aren’t zombies, they’re alien-infested humans that just happen to act a heck of a lot like zombies. That distinction makes a big difference, right?
Enter Left 4 Dead. Sure, I’d heard about it on The Video Game Show, but I only listen to that podcast because I work with one of the hosts; I don’t actually care about their opinions! But then P.G. Holyfiend started hinting (subtle fellow he is) that the Olde Fartz try a little zombie survival some Thursday night. Hey, we might like it! I gently rebuffed P.G., because Left 4 Dead is one of them new-fangled games and the whole point of Olde Fartz is to provide an opportunity for those of us who can’t afford a new gaming rig every six months to get together on a regular basis and play some of those not-so-new-and-shiny games we love.
Never mind that I rebuilt my PC last summer and it kinda-sorta meets the requirements to play some of these new-fangled games.
The final nail in the coffin was driven by my fellow Evil Overlord, Chris Miller, who—out of what passes for some sick, twisted facsimile of “kindness” that lives in the sick, twisted flesh-pump that passes for his “heart”—gave me a copy of the game on Steam. And so it came to pass that one Saturday night I was drawn into the world of zombie survival with Overlord Miller and Air Commandant Moore, and we—along with an array of projectile weapons and no small number of improvised explosives—battled our way through a shambling (and often not-so-shambling) horde of the restless undead.
And we did the same the next night; at least until Miller said something about having to get up for work in about as many hours as there are fingers on one of his hands. Our merry band…well, disbanded, but I’d not had enough of the zombie-killin’, so I played through the first mission in the single-player campaign, which turned out to be nearly another two hours and no, we don’t need to discuss what time I went to bed that night and that will be quite enough out of you, say please and thank you.
The game was a lot of fun, but it ran a bit slow on my PC. I attributed the less-than-stellar performance to my on-board video adapter. So, the first thing I did after we finished playing that Saturday night was get on NewEgg.com and order a new EVGA GeForce 9400 GT PCI-express video card w/1 GigaBoogle of RAM. Hey! It was on sale! Don’t you judge me!
As I predicted, game performance increased dramatically with the introduction of the new video card, and I decided to put these new, fancier pixels through their paces by playing through a couple of the single-player campaigns. What I learned is that Left 4 Dead is a different game when I’m not following in the wake of an experienced player.
For one thing, it takes me about twice as long to complete a mission. I tend to proceed with caution, exploring every nook and cranny of the level, using the echoes of my shotgun blasts to build a complete, three-dimensional sonar image of my surroundings in my head, like a 12-gauge Man Without Fear who never went to law school and isn’t acquainted with anyone named Foggy.
The cooperative multiplayer mode in Left 4 Dead is the Campaign. Each Campaign is broken down into five stages; each stage consists of making your way from one safe room to another, fighting off wave after wave of undead horrors until you find someone to get you the hell out of Dodge. Between safe rooms, you may be running through a railyard or the main street of a small town or ducking in and out of the various buildings that make up a typical urban landscape. The goal for the first four stages is always the same: survive until the next safe room.
Safe rooms bring only a brief respite from the zombie apocalypse; a few minutes to gather your wits about you, heal your fellow Survivors (always four, there are: Bill, Francis, Louis and Zoey) and stock up on ammo. In some cases, there may be better weapons stored in the safe rooms, too, but they are all alike in one respect: none of them have a rocket launcher.
Once all of your boo-boos are bandaged and your guns reloaded, it’s time for another mad dash to the next safe room. Along the way you may find pipe bombs and molotov cocktails, both of which make satisfying kabooms that don’t quite make up for the total lack of rocket launchers. There are also opportunities for improvised explosions from gas cans as well as propane and oxygen tanks. These can all be picked up and moved around, so as to lay traps for the feckless undead. Simply drop a gas can in a doorway and when the next wave barges through, one well-place pistol shot will set the whole gang aflame.
In some areas, the only way to move on is to trigger an event (lower a bridge, raise a platform, open a door, etc.) that will unleash a multi-pronged zombie attack. There is ample warning that the trigger will unleash the horde, so the Survivors have an opportunity to find the best vantage points from which to see (and shoot) the incoming zombies, lay traps, and stock up on deadly, deadly bullets (there’s almost always an ammo dump near the trigger point).
To make things more difficult for our heroes, there are special zombies. Yes, there are seemingly endless waves of your standard moaning, shambling, and sometimes sprinting undead, but there are also Boomers, whose vomit is a potent zombie aphrodisiac; get any on you and every zombie in the area will jump your brains. Then there are Smokers—so called because they hack and wheeze constantly and explode in a puff of noxious smoke when killed—who snare Survivors with their long, frog-like tongues, dragging them kicking and screaming to a gruesome end. Hunters are hooded hooligan zombies who skitter around on all fours and then pounce, pinning unlucky Survivors to the ground and wailing away at them until someone comes to the rescue. The Tank is a huge, grotesque zombie that throws chunks of concrete, plows through parked cars and has a wicked, wicked backhand. Then there is the Witch. When you hear her crying, don’t try to console her—she is emo, and for her, undeath is filled with pain that you could not possibly understand—just turn off your flashlight and tiptoe around her. Do not startle the Witch. She will, given the slightest provocation, seek to deliver her pain unto you tenfold.
Survivors who are pinned by Hunters, snared by Smokers or just generally incapacitated can be assisted by their fellow players. Shove the Hunter, Shoot those Smoker (or even just his long tongue, though this means he’ll live to lick again), or simply give your buddy a hand up. You can also dole out pills (which provided a temporary health boost) or administer first aid (though someone will have to watch your back, as this takes a few seconds).
All of this—shooting and running and healing and shooting and ducking into safe rooms and shooting some more—leads up to the fifth stage: the final showdown, which usually involves contacting a rescue vehicle (helicopter, boat, ATV, etc.) and then having to hold off a tsunami of zombies while the Survivors wait for the vehicle to arrive. If you’re lucky, you’ll live to fight another day. If you’re not so lucky…well, maybe you’ll wind up on the receiving end of a shotgun blast in Versus mode.
Ah, Versus mode. It’s all well and good to cooperate with three of your friends as you battle waves of zombies that gently lap at your brains, but there are times when cooperation just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes, you just gotta shoot your friends in the face or eat their brains. Versus mode separates your foursome into two groups of two: a pair of Survivors versus a pair of special zombies. [EDIT: I’ve been informed by sources of dubious reliability that Versus mode can be played four-on-four. I’m going to blindly accept it as fact and report it here.] The Survivors attempt to make it to the safe room while the zombies use their dirty tricks to stop them. With the exception of the Tank, the special zombies can be killed without much trouble—the Witch, whose hardiness is rivalled only by that of the Tank, is not playable in Versus mode—so the zombie players can respawn in a location of their choosing as a random special zombie a few seconds after they’ve been killed. Once all of the Survivors have either died or made it into the safe room (or a combination of both), the game resets and the roles are reversed. After both teams have played the Survivor role, each team receives a score based on how well they performed as the Survivors and a winner is declared.
The final game mode is Survival, which—as of this writing—I have yet to play. My understanding is that Survival mode replaces the “get to the safe room” objective with “just survive as long as you can against an unceasing flood of zombies”. I’ll update this post once I’ve had a chance to play.
The game I envisioned when people talked about Left 4 Dead and the game I wound up playing are pretty much two different beasts. The latter is much, much better. Which means that other people suck at describing awesome things. Heck, I probably do, too. It’s a fun game. Not for the kids. There are gallons upon gallons of blood and the language is pretty rough, so if that’s not your bag you probably want to avoid Left 4 Dead.
But if that is your bag, you may be able to find us on Steam, and we may need a fourth gun some evening, and we’d love to have you. Because, quite frankly, I am sick to death of being consistently one-upped by an AI player. Honestly, it needs to stop.
We’ve got a group on Steam: The Secret Lair Fragfest. If you’ve got a Steam account, join us. Even if you don’t have Left 4 Dead, ’cause we might play something else. There’s always a chance. It could happen.
Portions of this post originally appeared on The Secret Lair forums.