That, or you were so busy playing the game yourself that you really didn't care when we'd get around to reviewing it.
Either way, this is the review. How did Conrad Zimmerman and I feel about Left 4 Dead's gory, ambitious blend of single-player aesthetics with a cooperative experience? How does the versus mode match up with the campaign? If you only own a PS3, should you be really depressed, or just regular depressed?
Hit the jump to find out.
Left 4 Dead (PC reviewed by Anthony, Xbox 360 reviewed by Conrad)
Developed by Valve and Certain Affinity (360 version)
Published by Valve
Released on November 18, 2008 (US)
There's never been a game like Left 4 Dead. Single-player and cooperative videogames have been around since the dawn of the medium, but they've never before been combined with such care, style, and intelligence. Left 4 Dead takes the pleasures of a great multiplayer experience and, at least in its campaign mode, marries them with the meticulous pacing and spectacular scenarios of the best single-player games.
In its primary campaign mode, the game drops four (hopefully human-controlled) survivors into a zombie-infested wasteland, forcing them through five different maps and hundreds upon hundreds of Infected humans. There's no narrative, no character development, and no fluff: you're given only the slightest whiff of plot (through Portal-esque scrawled messages on safehouse walls) and who these characters are (through their wonderfully voiced contextual dialogue) before being let free into a gorgeously rendered world of pus and bile and exploding heads and film grain effects.
Though the AI director can sometimes screw things up -- spawning a tank roughly twenty feet away from the survivor spawn point, for instance -- the campaigns deliver pretty much everything one could want from them. Each self-contained scenario is wonderfully paced, full of high-stress sequences contrasted with even more terrifying lulls in combat where the players must brace themselves for the next inevitable onslaught, finally culminating in a grueling, timed showdown against a seemingly endless wave of the Infected.
Though each campaign only lasts about an hour (assuming you don't die), they individually feel like complete, totally satisfying experiences. About halfway through "Death Toll," it occurred to both my friend Ulisses and I that we were experiencing a single, unbroken rush of adrenaline that started the moment we stepped out of the first safehouse and would only end once we died or succeeded. Once Left 4 Dead's campaign sunk its hooks into us, we remained completely at its mercy, our hearts pounding with every step, our hands sweating at every turn, our headsets occasionally punctuated with squeals of either fear or gore-loving glee. There were no two ways about it -- Left 4 Dead had made us its bitch. Though Normal mode is way too easy (Advanced quickly became my difficulty level of choice), the four campaigns are fun, scary, and, thanks to the dynamic AI director, surprisingly replayable.
In case you're worried about an hour-long campaign feeling too short, don't. After completing my first campaign, I was so mentally and emotionally exhausted that I was incredibly thankful for the short campaign length. Though the gameplay never really changes up in any spectacular way (you're always going to be either shooting zombies, preparing to shoot zombies, or healing yourself after you've finished shooting zombies), the short campaigns keep the experience tense and hectic, just as a horror game should be.
Satisfying as the campaign mode is, many gamers have rightfully expressed worry that, AI director be damned, four one-hour campaigns wouldn't be enough to give Left 4 Dead the longevity of, say, Team Fortress 2. That's where versus mode comes in.
Versus mode is neither a carbon copy of campaign mode with controllable Infected, nor a completely separate gameplay experience. It takes the settings and director AI from the campaign, but tries to be more multiplayer-friendly by focusing more on the player-controlled special Infected than the weaker, mindless running zombies who populate the co-op campaign at every turn.
Unfortunately, it can be really damn frustrating to play versus as a Survivor. Out of the several hours of versus I've played, I've only seen the Survivors actually survive through a full level a handful of times, mostly because they either had the more powerful second-tier weapons, or the people they were playing against sucked really, really bad. Far too often, the versus matches take on a depressingly predictable structure: the Survivors get out, the (much more frequent) special Infected attacks do small amounts of damage to them for about ten minutes, then the game spawns a Tank and all the Survivors either die immediately or are so wounded by the encounter that the next round of Infected attacks does them in permanently.
Since the player-controlled Infected spawn within 30 seconds of their deaths, and since the Infected are so damned powerful and annoying, and since Survivors can only gain points by physically progressing through the map, the Survivor experience usually consists of the team running as far as they can, as fast as they can, simply to get the distance points they need before the special Infected respawn again. The suspenseful, meticulous pacing of the campaign mode is all but absent here: where the campaigns had moments of quiet to make the action sequences even more frightening, versus matches tend to be, at least for the Survivors, relentlessly stressful, and can often times feel downright unfair.
For instance, if the AI director spawns a tank three minutes into the level during a co-op campaign, it's not a big deal -- you just die, and try again. If the same thing happens in a versus match, you're just plain screwed. If the game randomly decided to rape you with a Tank earlier than it did when your opponents played through the same map, you're left with a crappy score just because the AI director decided it wasn't your day. Playing as the Survivors is the only way to get points in versus mode, but it also tends to be pretty damn frustrating.
This, of course, makes it really fun to play as Infected. As a Survivor, it can get really, really irritating to constantly be pounced upon or lunged at by a Hunter; when you're the Hunter, however, it's just plain fun. The Infected experience requires a completely different play style, and is pretty much responsible for whatever fun you'll be having in the versus mode. It's unusually satisfying to unsubtly blow away every zombie you see as a Survivor, then suddenly switch gears and become a stealthy, strategic, sneaking little bastard who uses pouncing, vomiting, or strangulation to destroy your opponents in a war of attrition. I still think, however, that the Hunter takes too much damage to kill and shouldn't be able to constantly jump around the map like a madman without stopping to recharge.
On another note, I can't help but ask -- why are only two of the campaign maps available in versus? It's one thing to do like Team Fortress 2 does and only include a few maps with plans to incorporate more through updates and stuff, but these maps already exist, on my hard drive, in the campaign mode. Why on Earth can't I also play them in versus? Maybe the process of optimizing a map for a different game mode is more complicated than I realize, but I can't help but feel a little frustrated that the mode which is supposed to give Left 4 Dead its long-term staying power currently only has two maps to choose from.
It also bears mentioning that the server browser, or lack of one, just plain sucks. Rather than allowing players to choose their own servers, the game automatically and randomly finds an open dedicated server for the players to use. This can mean irritatingly long wait times as the game tries to find an open server (which it often won't). Even when you finally find a server, it might just happen to be on the other side of the world; the game might choose a laggy UK server even though three of the players are American. The server finder only works about half the time, which is borderline ridiculous considering how well every other multiplayer Source game handles server browsing.
As a co-op game, Left 4 Dead is literally the best the genre has ever seen. As a competitive experience, it's still very entertaining, but ultimately conflicted and uneven. But that's okay; I'll just play campaign that much more. Campaign mode is so damn fun, and so damn suspenseful, that Valve could have just released that and Left 4 Dead would still be a must-have. As it stands, Left 4 Dead just happens to be a must-have game with a versus mode cherry on top. The cherry's a little bit sour, sure, and it's still got the pit in it, and it's been cut in half, and sometimes you can't connect with the cherry because you're not allowed to actually pick the cherry yourself but have to instead rely on a half-blind chef who rummages around in a bucket full of week-old cherries before handing you a random one, but hey -- it's still a cherry, and it's on top of an orgasmically awesome sundae.
Made of zombies.
Left 4 Dead really only does one thing: have a team of survivors kill zombies, and vice versa. There are only six different types of zombies, at that. In description, that sounds rather shallow, but the attention to detail and the AI director keeping things nice and random prevent that sense from prevailing when the game is actually experienced. You will not play two rounds of Left 4 Dead in exactly the same way, ever.
This is a teamwork game, through and through. If you want to hamper your enjoyment, let alone your chances for success, the best thing you can do is play with people who are either incapable or unwilling to communicate and work together. Halo this most certainly is not. As a result, pick-up games filled with random people often wind up a frustrating mess, which limits the appeal.
Computer-controlled Survivors are surprisingly capable, in the event that you don't have enough players to comprise a full team -- almost too competent, one might say. They observe every sort of special zombie and eliminate them with quick precision (a nightmare for Infected players in versus mode). Unfortunately, they will often stick around in an area to eliminate every undead in sight, and it's easy to leave them behind when they spot something that hasn't had its head blown off yet. Since there's no way to issue commands to them, there really isn't anything to be done about this, and it can be a bit annoying.
While the four campaigns are excellent fun and are given a fair bit of replay value through the AI director system, the versus mode is where most players will find themselves drawn once completing them. Going against player-controlled zombies requires planning and commitment to the plan. Playing the zombies, on the other hand, means getting to watch those plans fall apart, as there are nigh-infinite ways to throw a wrench into the Survivors' works.
I don't quite see eye-to-eye with Anthony on the multiplayer balance issues. The special zombie types are not particularly difficult to put down, although their abilities can have a fairly crippling effect. I found that, between the spawn time delay and the relative ease with which zombies in general can be killed when compared to the survivors, things worked out to be pretty evenly matched in games I played.
Where the mode really goes wrong is in the amount of available content. The versus play is so compelling, it boggles the mind that Valve would choose to limit it to half of the campaign. Yes, there are differences in terms of item location and appearance frequency of Tanks that randomize the experience, but that isn't really enough in the long run. Areas such as the hospital's uppermost floor, a maze of unconstructed rooms in which it is quite easy to become disoriented, lose a lot of the challenge after you've managed to commit the path to memory and know the map like the back of your hand.
None of this is to say that Left 4 Dead is a poor game. When you're playing with a good team, against another good team or just the AI, it is exquisite. There just simply isn't enough of it, especially when the elements all seem to be there to expand the versus mode. It smacks of the sort of DLC where the contents are already on the disc, yet must be purchased separately to be made available. It's a dark stain on an otherwise stellar title.
Overall Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
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