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Left 4 Dead

Up until this point we were flawless. Our foray into the streets ravaged by the outbreak was as efficient as you could hopefully ask for. Two people at the front (crouching), and the other two just behind working the angles outside of the front line’s vision – it was beautiful. Now inside what can only assumed to be an apartment building, our ruthless aggression continued. Francis and Zoe took the rooms and open doors to the side, whilst my friend (Louis) and me (Bill) handled affairs going forward. But one solitary scream of “TANK” down the headset was all that was required to send us into a frenzied dash down a flight of stairs. Throwing a pipe bomb to bye us extra time was a fruitless endeavour as the Tank batted it away like a piece of paper. All we could do was run. At the bottom, we were met by a Boomer with a stomach full of vomit, and once we had made our presence felt to every zombie in the area, it was all over. We were dead. And it could not have been more fun.

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It may just be (for the most part), a mindless zombie shooter from the Jack-of-all-trades more commonly known as Valve. But Left 4 Dead has this uncanny ability to make stories in amongst the utter carnage in which it lays its foundations. With the help of the player, the game forges experiences you’ll be recalling fondly with everyone that was with you for some time afterwards. “Remember that bit with the Witch and the Molotov?” You bet I do. “I cannot believe we didn’t die when that horde had us cornered in the bathroom!” Neither can I.

While a degree in mathematics isn’t needed to work out that four campaigns at an hour apiece does not equate to an epic by any stretch of the imagination. It does however, find its legs through Valve’s much-lauded Director A.I. — implemented to change where zombies and items spawn and in what quantity depending on players’ current situation within a campaign, giving Left 4 Dead endless potential and limitless replayability. Just about to enter a room that you remember as perfectly baron before? Don’t be surprised to find it rented out by the game’s merry band of freaks congregating for God only knows what, on your next visit.

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“Even when the Left 4 Dead is quiet… too quiet, that feeling of apprehension is forever building. In many ways, it is when nothing is happening, that you’ll feel least secure.”Each campaign hits its climax with an end-of-outbreak Grande finale – think that part in Resident Evil 4 with the house but at a far more breakneck speed. And it’s these conclusions in particular that will burn brightest in your mind when you aren’t playing. Anyone conditioned to combating the horde will wince and collectively share the pain of the ten-minute stand-off at the end of the No Mercy chapter. Wave after wave of zombies, Tanks, Boomers, and Smokers rain down on your squad like drops of rain; it’s an utterly relentless ordeal, and that break for the helicopter always feels so out of reach.

Depending on whom you play with, that final scramble for rescue can bring out the worst, or best in a ‘friend’. When the chips are down, it can be a hard kick in the teeth seeing your partner in arms, the guy you had (up until this point) looked out for as much as your own self, leave you behind in the pursuit of his own self preservation. On the other hand, you may find escape quickly dwindling away with every zombie taking a swipe at you, only for your teammate to come back at the last minute to clear a safe path for you both. And that’s just all of ten minutes spent playing Left 4 Dead.

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But as good as the Director A.I. is, it’s not the only factor that makes Left 4 Dead one of the finest multiplayer experiences of the year. In a game based on the highly dreaded (if completely improbable) zombie apocalypse, tension – and Valve’s ability to rack it up tenfold in the blink of an eye – is essential (and present). It’s rare nowadays for any videogame to create anxiety amongst one person, let alone four just through the sound design alone. Naturally, the game is at it’s most intense when the four of you are knee deep in zombies looking to tear you a new one, but even when the Left 4 Dead is quiet… too quiet, that feeling of apprehension is forever building. In many ways, it is when nothing is happening, that you’ll feel least secure.

For instance, each of the ‘special’ zombies you’ll get aquainted with in Left 4 Dead is instantly recognisable by the sound they make. Does it feel like there’s an earthquake incoming? Then it’s probably a Tank not in the best of moods (are they ever?). Can you vaguely hear a high-pitched whimper that echoes off the walls? Turn off your flashlight immediately. Can you hear sick salivating coming from above? Then do not wander off from the group, lest you be taken away into the shadows before you can pull on the trigger.

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Outside of the main game, there’s Versus mode: a strictly online affair that gives players the chance to jump into the decomposed flesh of the undead. There are two teams consisting of humans and zombies. The former must complete any one of the twenty chapters, while trying to avoid the advances of the latter team made up of any of the four ‘special’ zombies. Naturally, playing the enemy makes for a far more interesting experience and there are a whole new set of tactics, dos and do not dos to master. It doesn’t take many bullets to kill you, and taking into account the very long respawn times, patience and perfect timing is key. There’s always sick sense of satisfaction ruining the humans’ game just as they’re about to cross the proverbial finish line.

“Valve raised the bar for a number reasons with The Orange Box and a year later, they’ve gone and set the standard for online co-op as well.”It’s not without its problems, however. In Left 4 Dead, there is perhaps evidence that the Source engine is finally starting to show its age. Granted, the smoothness at which everything runs despite the sheer density of on screen action is impressive – but there’s a distinct lack of visual punch that Gears of War 2, for example, hands out for fun. Also, the controls as one would expect in a console shooter (especially one developed by Valve) aren’t nearly as responsive and sharp as they could be. There is a button for a quick 180-degree turn, but it’s more of a compromise than a solution, and this handicap for the joypad generation becomes patently clear for a game like Left 4 Dead, which requires quick turning for when you find yourself totally surrounded.

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And while the four campaign levels are a joy to play through repeatedly, it’s hard to shake the disappointment that there just isn’t more. It seems wrong that a zombie game such as this wouldn’t have a creepy school level, or an abandoned shopping centre to fight your way through, for instance. Thanks to a dedicated fanbase, PC gamers can look forward to running around The Winchester, whilst console owners can only hope for the same treatment. And even then it’ll more than likely come at a price.

But when you and three other friends are shouting at each other down the headsets to stick close to each other (I swear they never learn), you won’t even care about the game’s problems. Valve raised the bar for a number reasons with The Orange Box and a year later, they’ve gone and set the standard for online co-op as well. It’s not nearly as methodical, subtle or intelligent as their other IPs, but Left 4 Dead dives head first into the abyss covered in blood, guts, bile – every horrible bodily fluid you can possibly think of, and comes out of the other end smelling like roses.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2007.

Gentle persuasion

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