Left 4 Dead

These past several Mondays, my regular game of Halo 3 has rapidly and with a feeling of potential permanency changed to a new game. Left 4 Dead is close to unique in my experience in that it has almost no single-player component, no particular plot beyond the thumbnail sketch of world destroyed by zombiepocalypse with which we are all so familiar, no character growth to speak of. It is a pure game experience, divorced entirely from any other considerations. I mention this primarily to explain why you’re getting this review instead of a variety of other games I have played for considerably more hours but not yet completed. Halo 3, for example!

The inevitable big question, therefore, is how does the gameplay work out? I haven’t played by myself, but I’ve played a few other ways: two-player split-screen, two-player online, four-player online, and up to four-versus-four player as well, in all four game maps. So I’ve pretty much hit the whole thing by now. In case you don’t know what a zombiepocalypse is… you know what, nevermind. I think you’re just not allowed to read this anymore. Because, come on! Anyhow, there are these four single-dimensional survivor characters about whom you can tell basically everything just by looking at them, and they are surrounded on all sides both by hordes of zombies and by specialized über-zombies that grow to incredible strength, have entangling frog-tongues, pouncing cat leaps, or blinding toxic sludge. And the goal is to either cross the dead, destroyed city (or whatever) to unexpected safety, or, on the other side of the aisle, to devour all flesh.

Hey, look! I haven’t really said how the gameplay works out! It is frenetic, fast-paced terror as the survivors. Everywhere you turn, there could be a zombie with nothing to lose, whose only goal is to hurt you a little bit more, in the knowledge that you’ll be dead eventually. You’ve got limited weapons and ammo, limited ability to heal yourself, and essentially unlimited enemies. And as the zombies, it’s a strategic game of cat and mouse, in which you have nigh unlimited ability to find the survivors, and if you’re doing it right, herd them into cooperative traps with your über-zombie cohorts. You always come back, the only penalty for death being a period when you can’t keep attacking. On the downside, you’re pretty easy to kill and it’s hard to attack people who can shoot you from across the parking lot, well outside your range.

I guess it’s like this. Remember when Roddenberry introduced the holodeck in Star Trek, and any time the writers got tired of aliens, they’d have the opportunity to do a historical simulation of some kind, inevitably from the ever-popular twentieth century? The way I see the game is like this: thanks in part to the brilliantly conceived XBox Live network’s capability for connecting you with friends and letting you easily communicate with them however you want to, but mostly due to the beauty of the game itself, I see Left 4 Dead as pretty much the last necessary link for zombiepocalypse experience other than the invention of the holodeck.[1] It might actually be the perfect video game experience.

[1] Which really won’t ever happen, since the event itself will hit long before our technology is ready for a holodeck version.

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