Sep 12, 2010

First Impressions: Left 4 Dead

I am continuing my quest to catch up on all of the interesting games of the last few years that I've missed, and that quest includes - DEFINITELY includes - Left 4 Dead. No, not the sequel (I haven't gotten that far yet), but the original, a horrifying, frantic, nerve-wracking, panic attack-inducing game. It is the most claustrophobic experience I have ever had watching something play out on television (except, perhaps, for the Texas Funeral scene in Kill Bill, Vol. 2), and I have loved just about every minute of it.

Except for every minute of it. True, the game is fun, as much as any game that is as hard as Left 4 Dead can be fun, but the real challenge lies not in the game itself but in the engine that runs the whole experience. The AI Director (who I always imagine to look like Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget) simply chooses the most inopportune time to send hordes of the undead pouring through doors or down open hallways like cockroaches out of a cadaver that's just been prodded.

It is insanity. I am not one to respond to video games, one way or another, but when my health is depleted, I cannot help but beg the forces inside the XBox to please, please, PLEASE not place a witch in this spot on the map or place a Boomer behind that door.

Forgive the particulars of the language. In Left 4 Dead, you play as one of four survivors during the zombie apocalypse - hence the name - and, in addition to the numerous "normal" zombies in the game, there are special versions of them as well, infinitely more deadly and pants-wetting-scary in nature than their humdrum counterparts. Hunters are stealthy, powerful z-words that can pin you on the ground and rip chunks out of you until a team member saves you. Smokers have long tongues and will drag you long distances...until a team member saves you. Tanks are giant bruisers that require the entire team to kill. Boomers are fatties that vomit zombie juice all over you and attract a horde. And witches, well, witches are weepy little vixens that, if disturbed, will lay a hurtin' on you that will make you flinch every time you hear them in the distance.

All of which hints at the brilliance of Left 4 Dead. The co-op actually works, as opposed to most games, in which the sidekick is most notable for going out of its way to get in yours, or for taking all of your supplies while you singlehandedly take down the enemies (you know, the things your buddy's supposed to be helping you out with).

I've beaten the four major campaigns but haven't played the online co-op yet (alas, I just bought the XBox and must wait for another pay period in which to purchase a year subscription to XBLive). Overall, the game is extremely enjoyable, if frustrating. I do like that, though each campaign has the same basic structure, the number of zombies changes each time. Without that adapting AI, L4D would only be worth a play-through or two.

Oh, and my favorite campaign (and by far one of the best climaxes of any piece of zombie-related media) has to be NO Mercy, where you and your three compadres search for a local hospital and have an epic shootout on the roof while waiting for a chopper. Excellent. Can't wait to play it with actual people.

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