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Valve - the well-known creator of games like Halflife and CounterStrike - has entered the genre of zombie apocalypse games with the new title Left 4 Dead. This FPS game throws down the guantlet and challenges you to survive an endless horde of zombies while trying to get to safety. Although there have been zombie survival games in the past, they haven't really enveloped you in the idea that some of you very likely will not make it out alive. Left 4 Dead does just that, and even the developers have admitted to dying multiple times while playing. This game plunges you into a horrific world of zombies and if you manage to crawl out, you're very lucky.
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My Kingdom For A Story
In this game, you have the choice to play as one of four individuals. You can choose Francis, a tough looking biker with lots of tattoos. Or you can play as Louis, an IT geek who is out for a stroll among the zombies. Then there's Zoey, a college girl who enjoys horror movies. Finally there is Bill, a Vietnam veteran who brings battle experience to the team. It doesn't matter which one you choose, as they don't have different abilities or anything. They do however, each have a unique personality. In the single player game, you get to hear their vocalizations at various moments and it definitely adds to your immersion into the game.
Unfortunately, there's really not much storyline here. Other than a cinematic entrance, all you know is that you and these three other individuals are trying to survive without being torn to pieces by the zombies. There is no explanation for how you got there, and there's no story for why there are zombies everywhere - let alone why some of them have superhuman abilities. This can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. If you are looking for a detailed story explaining how you got to point A and why the world has gone to hell-in-a-handbasket, you won't find it here. If however, you want to join some friends online in a team of four and systematically blow away zombies, Left 4 Dead is sure to satisfy. There are clues regarding a backstory, but its very hit and miss. The mystery that usually surrounds this type of genre is alive and well in this game, but the absence of a story doesn't really detract from the experience as much as you might think though. Perhaps in an expansion or add-on, they will fill in the gaps.
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Its Good To Be The Director
A decidedly new and unique aspect of Left 4 Dead is The AI Director. This controller of AI dictates when and where the enemy will swarm all over you, and it takes into consideration a great deal of factors. The Director watches how you play, what your current status is (with regards to health, ammo, etc), and where you are in the game to decide just how many zombies to send your way. The AI Director also manipulates visuals, sounds, and even character vocalizations from your teammates as you progress through the game, customizing the experience every time you play. There is another Director that handles the music, and it decides what to play based upon what you have dealt with so far to provide you with an appropriate background theme. The music is performed client-side, so even in a multiplayer environment, every player is given their own customized score that continues as long as they are alive.
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Tools of the Trade
Much like other FPS games, Left 4 Dead gives you a small arsenal to choose from. This is a game however that demands your attention to detail - particularly your ammunition count. There will be few moments that you aren't close to running out of ammo, unless of course you're just running through the area like a madman. That particular path won't allow you to live long either. You also need to pay attention to your companions, since friendly fire is always on. Luckily the developers provide you with a fallback plan. The basic weapon you get to use is a M1911 pistol, which luckily never runs out of ammunition. You do however still have to reload it (either manually or automatically when the clip empties). This weapon is particularly effective when you pick up a second one and use one in each hand. The rate of fire is very quick, which is good considering your adversary.
As a secondary weapon, you're able to choose between an Uzi submachine gun or a Remington 870 pump-action shotgun. Usually an Uzi is portrayed as a less powerful and inaccurate substitute for a better automatic weapon, but in this instance it actually feels like an Uzi, sounds like one, and is quite useful for keeping the hordes at bay. The shotgun is an FPS standard, and it is quite devastating at close range. The shotgun is actually effective at an exceptionally far range - a bit unrealistic, but anyway - so it becomes useful even if the undead aren't right there knocking on your door.
As you progress through the game, you may find a M16A3 assault rifle. This weapon can be very effective, both from a long range perspective firing a single shot or a frenzied spraying of bullets into an onslaught of furious undead. There is also the Benelli M4 Super 90 shotgun, which packs an insane amount of up-close semi-automatic firing capability. This is by far the weapon of choice for those who want to plunge right into the fray (or if you have no choice, thanks to the energetic infected). Lastly there is a Ruger Mini-14, which is a highly accurate and powerful hunting rifle. It can even fire through some walls, which can be quite fun and helpful. Though there is a scope on this weapon, there will be very few times you are able to use it; the pace of action is just way too fast and the enemies rush towards you with an unreal fury.
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Pipe Bombs, Molotovs, and Gas Cans
You also have access to a couple of grenade-like weapons in Left 4 Dead. You can pick up a Molotov cocktail or an interesting pipe bomb along the way, but unfortunately you can only carry one at any time. The former is obvious in its use, but the latter is different than you expect. The pipe bomb has a little red light and makes a distinct beeping sound when you throw it. It attracts every zombie in range so that they crowd around it until the timer ends, at which point the resultant explosion creates undead shrapnel. There truly is not a more satisfying experience than using the pipe bomb just as your team is about to be overwhelmed.
There are also other items you can pick up and use at various points, like gasoline cans, propane tanks, or oxygen tanks. A well-placed gas can on the ground can be shot to create a wall of flame that attempts to eradicate any zombies brave enough to run through it - which they unfortunately do. I say unfortunately because some of the zombies are not immediately killed by flames. If you thought a horde of zombies was rough, a horde of burning zombies still coming takes it to an entirely new level.
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Zombies On Energy Drinks
Now that you know what you get to use against the hordes, you're probably wondering who - or what - it is you are fighting. In Left 4 Dead, there are a few different types of zombies. There are tons of what can be called "populace" zombies - ordinary people that have become infected and turned into zombies. Once they notice your team of four, they will rush you with insane fury and attempt to end you quickly.
There are also five "boss" zombies that make life particularly difficult. There is the Hunter, a dark hooded zombie that crawls around on all fours (despite being human) and leaps at you from hundreds of feet away, only to tear out your innards as you're pinned helplessly on the ground. The Boomer is an extremely overweight zombie who enjoys spewing bile on you, which then attracts the hordes of zombies instantly to you. When killed, he explodes into a bloody mess, hence the name. The Smoker zombie can use his stretchable tongue to lasso you and pull you towards him as he crushes the life out of you with it. When he is killed, he explodes into a cloud of noxious gas that damages your health and leaves you coughing. The Tank is just that - an insanely musclebound unstoppable zombie that bashes you to a pulp; It usually takes the entire team to take this one down. Finally, we have the Witch. You will likely hear her way before you see her, which is a good thing. The Witch wishes to never be bothered, so if you flash a light on her or make too much noise, she will take out her fury at being disturbed on you - so much so that she ignores the other members of your team as she seeks to disembowel you. She is also very difficult to take down, so avoid her at all costs if you can.
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Play By Yourself Or With Friends
There a few modes available for Left 4 Dead. There is the single player mode, which consists of four campaigns. The AI - thanks to the Director - keeps your team pretty tight, so this is not as difficult as it might otherwise be. Going through the single player campaigns is fun and not a bad idea, but this is not where the game's true strength lies. Don't misunderstand - the single player mode is good, but there are better ways to play this game.
The multiplayer fun is definitely where the game shines. You can play online - via dedicated Steam servers - as one of the four individuals and work your way through the same campaigns available in the single player mode. Or you can choose to play Versus mode, which allows you to spawn as one of the zombie bosses. You do not get to choose which one to play of course, since that is randomized by the game. But you do get access to their special abilities and attempt to kill your human opponents as they struggle to reach the safe points. This mode of play pits two teams against each other, and you switch back and forth as the teams either succeed or fail. Unfortunately you do not get the opportunity to play as the Witch, but the other four boss undead are fair game.
One thing you notice right away is that cooperation amongst the teams is mandatory. If you do not stay with your team, you will surely die. Since this is hosted using Steam, the game also takes note of a few things regarding your play. You get red demerits for example, for firing on your own people or causing your team to get wiped out. All statistics in fact are kept, which is part of your online record as a player. Another interesting aspect is the ability of any team to vote a member off the team. This helps keep griefers from ruining everyone's fun, which is a nice improvement.
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Grim Visuals With A Backbeat
Left 4 Dead drops you into a dark and empty hole and challenges you to climb out. Its dark, grim, and at times downright scary. Then of course there's the zombies everywhere. Visually, the game is incredibly well done. There are even bloodsplatters on your screen if you happen to blow an enemy away too close to you. When you get hit by Boomer bile, all you see is green mucus; Its an effect you really have to experience.
Thanks to the AI Director and the music Director, the sound ensemble is just as incredible. Music is appropriately toned as you journey along. The fearful growl of a Hunter and the sorrowful sobbing of a Witch really pull you deep into the atmosphere of the game. So while the graphics are nicely done, they are equalled by astounding well done sounds and music. The only slight negative is that when the hordes begin to appear around you, there is a buildup of deep drum beats, alerting you to the ambush. But since you're really only given a second or two before they are on you anyway, it doesn't really ruin the experience too much.
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It Takes Power To Kill Zombies
The requirements of this game are a little stiff, but considering it just entered the gaming scene, thats to be expected. Your gaming PC should have at least the following:
- System OS: WinXP, Vista, or Vista64
- Processer: 3.0 Ghz P4 Dual Core 2.0 or AMD64X2 (or higher)
- RAM: 1 Gig for XP, 2 Gig for Vista
- DVD ROM Drive - Thats right, it comes on a DVD.
- HD Space: At least 7.5 Gig free space
- Video: Card with 128MB memory and DirectX 9-compatible (ATI 9600 or higher or Nvidia 6600 or higher)
- Sound: DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card.
The system used to play this game was fairly close to the minimum specs, other than having a graphics card with 512MB memory. Having said that, the game ran exceptionally well with no noticeable performance issues.
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Now Get In The Game
Left 4 Dead is an incredibly impressive game. Other than a lack of a robust storyline, there really isn't much to gripe about. The AI Director ensures that your experience will be different every time you play, whether its by yourself or online with friends. Its such a unique and significant addition to the FPS genre, its sure to be the standard by which all future games are compared. The necessity of cooperation among a team really places this game as a model for co-op games everywhere. If you don't work together with your team - no matter if you're playing online or not - death will come swiftly and viciously at the hands of the undead. The visuals and sound keep you immersed within the game like none before it. The zombies are darkly furious, disgustingly brutal, and thoroughly enjoyable as adversaries. The online experience is exceptional, with no real noticeable latency or stutter in the game, no matter what is happening on screen. This is a game which will consume your free time quickly, so pick up a copy, kiss your significant other goodbye, and lose yourself in what is sure to be a thoroughly enjoyable game.