Left 4 Dead

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You creep down the narrow alleyway, the flickering shadows cast by a dozen fires playing maddening tricks on your vision. Your sweating palms are clenched tightly around your weapon, the attached flashlight providing a narrow beam of light that throws your surroundings into a harsh darkness by contrast. You’re making a desperate attempt to get to the hospital across town, where you hear survivors are being airlifted to safety. The last few hours have been an unending fight from safe room to safe room, but now you’re almost there – the silhouette of Mercy Hospital looms just ahead. In the two weeks since the infection, you’ve learned to shut out the ever-present groaning and shuffling, and you barely jump at the sound of distant screams anymore. But somehow, you always know when the Infected are close – and sure enough, you hear the thunderous sound of footsteps as a crowd of them, attracted by your light, charge at you. You break out in a cold sweat, leveling your weapon at the rapidly approaching horde and get ready to fight for your life…

This is the world that “Left 4 Dead” puts you in. From the moment you start the game, you’re put into the shoes of one of four survivors trying to get out of the city – Zoey, Francis, Louis, or Bill. You pick up the weapon of your choice, grab a first-aid kit, and make for the safe rooms that are your resting point between levels.

The levels themselves are more or less linear. With a few exceptions, you’ll need to make your way along a set route from safe zone to safe zone, fighting your way though hordes of zombies as you go. However, thanks to new advances in AI, the levels never play through the same way. An AI program dubbed the Director controls the zombies – where they spawn, how they react, where to spawn special zombies such as the Boomer or Smoker, and when to just throw zombies at the survivors from every direction. Thanks to this, the otherwise linear levels feel very dynamic, and it ensures that you’ll never have the same experience twice. Also, at the end of each chapter, there is a “finale” level, where the survivors have to bunker down in a location and defend it from hordes of infected until their rescue arrives.

Gameplay is essentially what you’d expect from a shooter – standard controls, a few weapons, and lots of targets to spend your ammo on. The big emphasis in this game is on teamwork. Your run-of-the-mill zombies go down fairly easily, but if you don’t coordinate with your teammates even a small horde can present serious problems. And if you have teamwork issues, heaven help you the first time you have to take down one of the special zombies like the Smoker or, worse, the Tank.

The special zombies are mostly there to keep the team on their toes, force them to stick together, and provide different challenges to overcome. The Boomer, for example, is slow, fragile, easy to hit, and has a very weak attack. However, if he gets close enough to vomit on you, the putrid substance will attract every zombie for hundreds of feet to go out of their way to attack you. Similarly, the Boomer explodes rather violently when he dies, showering everything nearby in zombie-attracting bile. The Smoker can constrict survivors from a distance with his freakishly long tongue, dragging them away from the group and incapacitating them. The Hunter, while useless at long range, can pounce on survivors and knock them to the floor, dealing out heavy damage as well as immobilizing them.

Those, however, are just the regular “boss” zombies. They’re relatively easy to deal with if you know how, and while they might shake you up for a few minutes you’ll ultimately move on. However, this isn’t all the game has to offer. You’ll also occasionally make friends like the Witch or the Tank.

The Witch is the lesser of two evils, as she will sit relatively docile until disturbed. It’s possible to sneak by her. All you have to do is turn off your lights, crouch down, give her a wide berth, walk by slowly, not make a sound, and hope she doesn’t see you anyway – because if she does, she can shred a healthy survivor in seconds.

The Tank is much more straightforward than the Witch. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s more straightforward because it just runs right at you and attacks. The worse news is that this behemoth can toss survivors around like ragdolls with one punch, and is so tough that it’ll take concentrated fire from your entire team to take it down. The better solution is often simply to run away. (But where’s the fun in that?)

One of the real gems about “Left 4 Dead” is that the game actually features a game mode above and beyond four survivors working together. In Versus mode, you have your four survivors working together – but you have another four players playing as the “boss” infected, doing their best to kill the survivors at every turn. Each level is played through twice, with each team switching between playing as survivors and the infected. At the end of the level, the survivors are assigned a score based on the distance they made it through the level, the amount of health they collectively have left, how many of the team survived, and the difficulty of the map. Both teams play all the way through to the finale, after which scores are compared to see which team wins the game.

All in all, this game is probably one of the most entertaining games I’ve played all year. From just the concept of the zombie apocalypse, to the teamwork aspect, to fighting for survival, and even to playing as the special infected, everything about this game is almost too much fun. I’ll recommend this game to everyone who will listen, and even a few people who won’t. So grab your favorite weapon, load up on supplies, and get ready for the time of your life, because the horde isn’t far away – and they’re not those shuffling, brain-eating pushovers you’ve seen in movies.