HIGH It might have taken fifteen years for someone to figure out that a zombie-killing FPS was a good idea, but at least the wait is finally over.
LOW Other than the fact that you actually get to kill zombies in it, there is nothing to recommend this game.
WTF Bombs that make loud beeping sounds make zombies attack the bombs. Car alarms that make loud beeping sounds make zombies attack me. What?
The premise is simple and clean—there's been a zombpocalypse, and only four people are left alive in a city full of the "infected". For those uninitiated, "infected" is code for "fast zombies who are easy to kill because they're still technically alive". This means that during the heroes' arduous trek from the starting point to their ultimate rescue, headshots are neither a necessity, nor a particularly smart tactical choice. Actually, there's just one smart tactical choice, and it's both game's strongest and weakest point. The contentious tactic? Teamwork.
Left 4 Dead is a co-op only game. It's essentially unplayable in solo player mode—the team AI is incredibly timid, always hanging back and letting the player get attacked and battle all of the enemies first. The non-player characters also neglect to throw grenades or use the environment or emplaced weapons to battle enemies. This renders the game all but impossible on anything but the easiest difficulty levels. While two-player split-screen is possible, in that eventuality there are still two computer-controlled characters, and the underlying problems still persist.
The only way to get the full experience out of the game is to go online and round up a full crew of players, which, as with all online games, puts players at the mercy of strangers. The quality of experience that Left 4 Dead has to offer is entirely dependent on the quality of player they encounter, more so than any other game I've encountered. This is because the game requires a total commitment to teamwork at all times. In addition to the normal hordes of zombies that surround the players at all times, there are five types of "special infected", each of whom has the ability to incapacitate the player with a single attack, and go on to kill them quickly if the other players don't swoop in and rescue them. Practically, this means that players can't separate at all for more than a few seconds at a time without being killed in an extremely unpleasant manner.
There are four distinct stories, or "movies" that the players can enjoy, each one telling the same basic story: The survivors start at one end of an area, and have to fight their way across it order to make their escape. These levels can be played in any order, and effectively break down into difficulty levels (in addition to the damage-based difficulty levels that the player has access to). The two urban-themed levels are a little easier. By virtue of the fact that they're set almost entirely in narrow hallways, there are usually only two directions zombies can attack from, so it's very difficult to be taken by surprise. The two rural levels are much harder, as the players spend much of the time surrounded by dense, impenetrable forest that zombies can come rushing out of at any moment.
While shooting the hordes of zombies is certainly entertaining enough when played in a group, the repetitive structure of the of the game ensures that things will get old quickly. There's next to no exploration required, and precious few alternate routes through each area. This means that every level plays almost exactly the same every time. Yes, the concentrations of enemies change from level to level, but essentially every room in every level is full of zombies, so it's only changes of minor degree. All the major events of the game, sieges where the players have to defend themselves from a horde of zombies while a pathway opens slowly, are exactly the same every time.
The so-called "AI director" is supposed to randomize things to keep the game moving, but in practice that just boils down to sending an additional charging horde of zombies after the player if they stay in one place for more than a minute. The game is bare to the point of absurdity—play through one of the chapters, and the game has shown every enemy, weapon, and situation it has to offer. While the specific geography of the maps may differ, the encounters they offer are mind-numbingly similar.
This repetitiveness is what bothered me most about Left 4 Dead (other than the obnoxious use of a number in place of a word). There's always going to be a little been-there-done-that to a game that expects players to run through the same levels over and over again, but most games of this type give players something to keep them interested. Whether it's learning the advantages and disadvantages of various classes, upgrading weaponry, or just earning new costumes, developers find ways to encourage replay. This was apparently not a concern for the Left 4 Dead team, because the game doesn't offer anything to encourage replay. The multiplayer component of this multiplayer-only game is so basic and threadbare that players can't even design their own character's appearance! Despite the fact that there's no plot to speak of, players are forced to control the same four utterly generic characters, none of whom play any differently.
Left 4 Dead's one saving grace is its Versus multiplayer mode, which pits two teams of players against each other over the course of an entire story, taking turns playing each chapter as either the survivors or the special zombies determined to murder them. It's an ingenious mode that I wish we'd see a little more often, where the survivors are playing the level normally, but all special zombies are controlled by the other team. Scoring is based on how much health each survivor has when they get to the end of each chapter, multiplied by the number of survivors left, and after each chapter is played once, the teams switch roles and the level resets, giving each team a chance to try out the other's role. Due to the role swapping games of this type take twice as long to play, but that inconvenience is more than made up for by the intriguing challenge that human opposition adds to the game. The spawning and behaviour of the special infected is so predictable that they don't provide much of a challenge. Going up against intelligent zombies who can communicate, plan, and co-ordinate their efforts adds a level of randomness and excitement that the rest of the game is sorely lacking.
People love killing zombies. That defining truth underwrites something like 20 percent of the video games industry. The fact that until the release of Left 4 Dead there wasn't a first person shooter about killing hordes of zombies is bizarre oversight, and the fact that the game rectifies that error makes it a worthwhile exercise. Unfortunately, the multiplayer-only focus limits the amount of people who will be able to play the game, though, and the limited length and variety of that multiplayer experience ensures that the game is unsatisfying as anything other than a basic, visceral endeavor. Yes, shooting hordes of zombies is fun, even more so with three other friends. But the game doesn't have anything to offer beyond that simple activity, and it most likely stop being relevant the moment someone makes a zombie FPS with a little more depth.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 6 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 3 times) and 10 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, language. It's a game solely about constantly shooting zombies to death. Maybe the kids shouldn't be playing it. Although, to be fair, by the standards of zombie games the gore is relatively tame. You won't find a great deal of decapitations and limb severings or anything like that, and when zombies are blown up they dissipate into a fine red mist.The goriest thing here are the blood decals that splatter everything when zombies get shot.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The music in the game is specifically tuned to warn the player about different kinds of danger, and without that, you'll have a little more trouble knowing when the zombies are coming. That being said, this is a Valve game, which means it contains their famously thorough and helpful subtitles.