The first time I heard of Left 4 Dead was from a forum member at Eurogamer. Because of his involvement in the games industry, he’d managed to snag a preview build of Valve’s new zombie killing game, touted as a pure co-op survival test against screaming hordes and an intelligent adaptive AI. When asked of his opinion, he said that he thought it might be the best online co-op game ever.
I still think he might be right.
Left 4 Dead follows four survivors of the zombie…sorry, infected… apocalypse as they work through a number of filmic sequences in a desperate hope to reach the rescue point. Each story is split into a number of smaller sections, safe rooms linking the levels and giving the players a chance to catch their breath. The infected are split into a number of types designed to mess with your strategy, and in typical Valve fashion, the whole selection is almost perfectly balanced. Regular infected fill most of the voids and scream towards you, Hunters crouch and jump with bloodcurdling screams, Tanks are huge and generally beat the shit out of you, Smokers reel you in with long tongues, Boomers explode is a shower of zombie-attracting slime, and Witches – my favourite – sit sobbing in the corner until someone dares to go near them. Then that someone will probably die.
The cherry on top of the infected pie is the ebb and flow of the game being controller by the “Director”, an AI routine that constantly mixes up enemy attacks and position. This ensures that every playthrough feels utterly fresh and vibrant, the telling music cue of an infected attack soon rooting itself in your panicking psyche. Also, it really helps that the cast of four characters are extremely well written, with presence oozing out of their every move. They all have exactly the same skill and movement set, so why do we pick favourites? Who knows, but I know that Zoe is mine. Almost as a way to prove their value, *Left 4 Dead 2″ has a less interesting set of characters who didn’t come anywhere close to the first game’s level of involvement.
In the final section of the first chapter, a helicopter is coming to collect you from a roof top. The last forty-five minutes have been a terrifying blast through the safehouses, and you are still four. However, the chopper is taking its sweet time so you have to take shelter in a room containing guns and assets. The infected attack in waves, from all directions, adding to the feeling of barely surviving by the tips of my fingers. It’s a desperate final stand – nowhere to run, hide or plan – just the waves upon waves of infected trying to kill you. The chopper finally sweeps in, and this is where the fun really begins. To get to the landing pad, you all have to vacate the safety of your little shack to face to monsters on your doorstep. As you sprint over to the waiting vehicle, the infected throw everything at you to try and snag some team members, wanting that the rest of the team leaves with people missing. It’s an incredibly stressful mix, but get all four team members safely on the chopper and the feeling of absolute elation is truly a moment to savour.
The best multiplayer co-op game? If not the best, it certainly is in the top three. After Left 4 Dead 2 overstretched the formula and lost a little of the sharpness, here’s hoping that a third game can rediscover its roots and have a similar impact on the new consoles.