Zombies in video games have had a similar journey as that of the zombie in movies. They've been around for as long as the particular media has been around playing a vital part of the horror genre. In both cases, the zombies were put in the forefront by a particular title. For movies it was Night of the Living Dead and for games it was Resident Evil. In both cases, these titles set the rules of how zombies should be and there are few instances were that tradition was broken. For the movies, that slow moving zombie of the past was forever changed with the movie 28 Days Later which substituted the traditional zombie with a zombie that runs. While such a simple change, it affected the whole idea of what a zombie is and since then, movie creators have a choice on what kind of zombie they want in the future. Left 4 Dead does the same in changing the traditional zombie game bringing forth a new style of horror game.
Left 4 Dead plays out like a horror movie that you can play. There are four Survivors to choose from: Francis, Zoey, Louis and Bill. You select one of these four survivors and play through four different campaigns with the possibility of more campaigns coming out in the future. Each campaign takes place in a certain location where it's the end of the world because zombies are everywhere. The campaigns themselves are set as individual movies, with cheesy names for the campaign that star the four Survivors. Campaigns are split into five levels and in each level, you'll be fighting zombies (actually they're humans infected with a special rabies virus) and also face off with a few boss zombies that have some deadly abilities. The goal of each level is to reach a safe house that involves going through tons of zombies. The fifth level, the finale, is a definite nail biter filled with tons of action throughout the level. Don't expect any epic storyline or conspiracies here. In true survival horror fashion, you're only goal is to have you and your crew survive.
With the game having four main characters, you can play one character while the other three are controlled by bots, have four people over in multiplayer fashion, or get a team online through Xbox Live. Once the team is set, you began at a starting point where you pickup your basic supplies and weapons. With this being a FPS game, your choices of weapons are traditional and effective. Your basic weapon is a standard handgun that can be dual wielded if you find a second gun. While you have unlimited ammo with the handgun, you should only use this as a last resort since other weapons perform better. To go along with the handgun, you will have a choice of a submachine gun, two kinds of shotgun, assault rifle and a hunting rifle for the sniper in all of us. These weapons have limited ammo that can be replenished at certain points throughout the level. In additional to these weapons, you also have access to a pipe bomb and Molotov cocktail to really put a hurt on a lot of zombies at once. Each character will also have access to a health pack at the beginning as well as throughout the level, and pain pills can also be found in certain parts of a level. These two items can be used on yourself or, if you're feeling generous, shared with your teammates if they're low on health. Every character has their own health meter and once it gets down to zero, that player is then forced to the ground. A second meter is shown and if the player is not helped off the ground by a teammate before that meter is at zero, the player dies. Individual players can make a reappearance later in the stage if the survivors stay alive long enough. Revived characters are placed in random closets within the level, usually within close proximity of the team. If all player controlled characters are dead, then its game over.
As expected, bots are not as good as human players although some idiots on Xbox Live make you wish that they could be replaced with a bot. Since all four survivors are essentially the same in abilities, it takes teamwork to survive each level. Each campaign takes place in a different setting and the finale of each campaign involves a climax of some sort. The ultimate goal is always to survive and get the hell out of wherever you are.
Boss zombies represent a ying to the survivor yang if you will. While the typical zombie throughout the level can be killed with one shot, the boss zombies take a little more punishment as well as give more punishment. These boss zombies consist of the Boomer, Hunter, Smoker, Tank and Witch. The Boomer is a bloated zombie that will vomit on survivors, or when killed, have their vomit spray all those nearby causing the players effected to be blinded and also a target for a large number of regular zombies. The Hunter is an agile zombie that pounces on a survivor and will continue to attack the downed survivor until that survivor is helped by a teammate. The Smoker has a long tongue that will grab any survivor, bind them, and reel in that survivor so that it can be easily attacked. Once again, the survivor needs help from a teammate to get out of that predicament. The Tank is a big brute of a zombie that takes a lot of bullets before it dies and will cause major damage to any survivor that get nears it. Finally, there is the Witch. A Witch hides in the shadows and will only attack if agitated by a survivor. Witches are very deadly and can immediately take down a survivors' health to zero. Each of these boss zombies is found multiple times throughout a level and the frequency of their appearance if controlled by the Director. The Director is the AI of the game created by Valve that judges on your performance in a level on whether to send more or less zombies after you. With the Director, each playthrough of a level is not exactly the same.
As I mentioned earlier, Xbox Live allows you to play online forming a team to not only complete every campaign, but also beat each campaign on the different difficulties. At the highest difficulty, a team must be working on every level to survive. In order to get all achievement points for the game, you will have to play at its most difficult.
Also, for the first time ever in a game, you have the chance to play as a zombie against the humans. In the Vs mode, 8 players will split into teams of 4 with one team controlling the survivors while the other team being in control of the boss zombies. For those playing as the survivors, this mode is not much different than playing through a level within the campaign. The difference lies with whichever team is controlling the zombies. When playing on the zombie team, you will have a chance to play as a Boomer, Hunter, Smoker or Tank. The Witch is not available at all and the Tank is only available at certain times. During the level, you will have to choose your spawn point, away from the survivors view, and you will be chosen as one of the four boss zombies (mainly three since the option to be a Tank only comes once a level). Each boss zombie has a short range and long range attack that is exactly the same as if the boss zombies were controlled by the computer AI. While it is a sight to see being a part of the wave of zombies is hoping to kill the survivors, you will see a fatal flaw in the Vs mode. The boss zombies are very fragile as they are if you were playing against computer AI controlled boss zombies. This results into being killed many times over by the survivors since a few stray bullets can take you out. Then comes the waiting for respawn message, and then you start all over again. With the exception of the Tank, you will find yourself dead within a few seconds if you get close to the survivors. Even at long range, you will die easily and often leading to this mode being less fun than hoped for. Depending on whether the survivors all die or reach the safehouse, the next level is loaded up and the teams switch allowing the former survivors play the zombies and vice versa. While it was a great idea, the execution of this idea was less than stellar although the Vs mode can be a much needed distraction to the campaign mode.
The game is powered by the Valve's Source engine used in their games such as Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. While the graphics are not on par with some of the best looking games on the Xbox 360, the game really shines in the sheer number of characters on the screen at once. The Survivors themselves look good but again not great which can be said for the environments as well. If there's a point you can criticize it would be the detail of the zombies. There are maybe four or five different models for the zombies, not including the boss zombies, and they are nothing special to look at. However, like I said, when you see a good 20-30 of these zombies running full speed without any slowdown at all, that shows there is some impressive power in the graphics engine. The score does a good job of keeping with the action on screen continuing the experience that you're playing a movie rather than just a game. Sound effects also add to the creepiness of the game with the scariest sound being the crying of the Witch which is so ironic. As for the voice actors, they did a good job of keeping the Survivors from being annoying since they will talk all the time.
When I first played the game, I was disappointed with how little content there seems to be. Yet it wasn't until I played with a buddy that I realized where the true fun is. Rather than playing a co-op game where you and your crew have to be tactical, Left 4 Dead puts you in the middle of a zombie epidemic with some big guns, and your goal is to blast through the wave of zombies in order to survive. If that doesn't say how much fun the game is, I don't know what is.
The PC version has a lot going for it. Better gameplay if you love the mouse/keyboard combo. Lots of extra content available to download. If you have the hardware, the graphics are incredible.