Review by jfjnpxmy

Reviewed: 02/06/09

Money4OldRope

Alright slim, listen up, cause here's the skinny. Basically, nerds will buy absolutely anything with zombies in it. Pale, pimply, unathletic computer aficionados love the idea of the end of the world, because they can steal all the overclocked motherboards they want and women will have to mate with them, but in most Apocalyptic scenarios the nerds would be the first to die, leaving a world populated by former military, survivalist nutjobs and gun-happy Jesus freaks. Zombies, on the other hand, are slow, shambling and easily duped. Even a nerd could survive a zombie apocalypse, since athleticism and courage are secondary to planning and obsessive hoarding, which nerds excel at. As such, nerds will buy ANYTHING with zombies in it. Stephen King does coke and writes a crummy book about psychic flying cell phone zombies? It sells BILLIONS. George Romero slaps some makeup on some extras and allegorises about consumerism and racism? It sells BILLIONS. Capcom slaps zombies into their latest medallion chasing simulator/mall paramedic simulator? It sells BILLIONS.

Valve slap some zombies into a half-finished game? It sells at least 1.8 million.

You see, Valve are a crafty bunch. They knew this game wouldn't sell on its own merits. Valve haven't made a complete game since Half-Life 2, five bloody years ago. The Orange Box consisted of a half-finished Team Fortress, a half-finished Half-Life 2 sequel and a fun but extremely short puzzle game with the world's most excruciatingly over-quoted humour. Oh, and a demo for Peggle. A bunch of half finished stuff, but bundled together so that you were actually getting okay value for money. This time, there's no other stuff. No zombie Peggle, no puzzle game for you to quote ad infinitum. There's only Left4Dead, and it isn't much. BUT HEY LOOK, ZOMBIES!

Give Valve their due, though, when they can be bothered, they turn out good stuff. Left4Dead is as atmospheric as all Hell. The graphics are absolutely awesome. The zombies (or Infected, or whatever), are as gross as all get out, and they run, skip and get shot to bits with a realism that borders on the unsettling. These aren't your shambling, Noun of the Dead style brain-chompers, these are [.REC] style, blood-dripping-from-mouths, running and flailing lunatics. Shoot them mid-sprint, their inertia carries them on and they stagger about most convincingly. Bits fly off of them, with lots of gore and splatters all over walls. Corpses heap up, making a spectacularly unpleasant tableau. The Special Infected, are even worse. The Boomer, in particular, is a wobbly, pustulent fatass, covered in tumours so nasty they look like they're straight from Rotten.com, and walking around with a hilariously realistic fat man gait. I tell ya, it was like looking at your mother. The Hunter runs with a creepy, vermin-like run, and he looks so grubby and unpleasant you can almost smell his unwashed hoodie. The Smoker has his own smoke machine, perfect for 80s metal concerts, and facial protuberances that make John Merrick look positively kissable. The levels, too, look absolutely fantastic. Environments are grimy, dark and ruined looking. Blood and graffiti (including messages from survivors to other survivors - a nice touch) are all over everything, and all really does look like a world that's been screwed over by hordes of super-rabid throat-biters. Special shout out, cause I know you kids don't notice this stuff, to the lighting, which really sets it all off. The use of light and shadow makes Eraserhead look positively amateurish, which is testified to as soon as you turn it off. BOOM, you're back in CS 1.2! Blast those zombies faster...OH CRAP COUNTER-TERRORISTS WIN. There's some kinda shenanigans with film grain effects, too, which sure is purdy.

The sound, too, is radical. Music is brilliantly done, coming only in little fits and bursts when zombies are near you, and it's different from zombie to zombie. The Tank, for example, has an epic, "Now you're doomed" kinda tune that plays as he comes rumbling towards you, whereas the mysterious Witch has a creepy theme that sounds like dying yodelers in a cathedral. The Smoker, Boomer and Hunter have tunes too, but I forget what they sound like. Acid Jazz or big band swing or somesuch. Also, the soundtrack gets more tense and fast-paced according to what's happening. Wandering along, looking at the scenery and talking about boys? There's hardly any music at all. Staving off a ravenous horde of the not-really-undead, with two shells left in your gun and some super-zombies on their way? It's all "DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN OOOH CRAAAAP YOU IN TROUBLE". It definitely helps to add tension and atmosphere and that sort of stuff. The voices, too, are notable. It's all extremely well voice acted, and there's about 4.9 billion lines recorded per survivor, ranging from your simple "YES. NO. THANK YOU" voice commands to long, involved debates on the relative merits of beards vs. vests. When the survivors kick into conversation, it's pretty much always convincing and awesome. A shame they rarely do, then, especially since the average player online opts only to spam Zoey's incredibly annoying death scream, or Bill's bizarrely humourous cry of "PILLS HERE!" over and over. Zombies, although slightly less coherent, are no less vocal, as they all scream, shriek, moan, gasp, honk, toot, clang and buzz at you. The Special Infected, being Special, moan incoherently, make grotesque bubbling noises, cough, barf and scream in a most convincing manner. The Tank makes a hilarious "NUUURGH" noise as he swings his ham sized hands, the Witch sobs irritatingly and shrieks frighteningly. By God, if you shut your eyes you could almost believe you were on the Special Bus. Sound effects, well, they're pretty good too. Helicopters sound helicoptery, shotguns make satisfying BOOOOM noises, and flesh being rent sounds like flesh being rent should sound. A slight disappointment is the hunting rifle, which sounds like it's being fired from the other end of a well-carpeted room, and the pipebomb, which starts off good, beeping away furiously, before letting loose a rather disappointing "foomf" noise that sounds more like a fat man sitting on a beanbag than 2lbs of high-ex shredding some rabid pig-dogs.

So, Left4Dead is one exquisitely presented package, all in all, but here's the thing - it's the classic case of style over substance. All this brilliantly atmospheric set design and spectacular audio is being applied to something with approximately as much depth as a baking tray. Allow me to explain the gameplay and "story", for the benefit of you who haven't played it.

You have four survivors - sorry, Survivors. Bill, a jaded old Vietnam veteran. Francis, a Village People style biker nihilist. Louis, constant source of Obama jokes and Zoey, waif-like college dropout who can somehow hit zombies just as hard as a 6ft tall bar brawler. In each of the scenarios, they are at point A, and need to get to point Z. Unfortunately, points B to Y are stuffed with broken down vehicles, collapsed buildings, other such ruins of society and the Infected, former regular joes who have got Super Rabies. Where the Super Rabies came from, nobody knows. Maybe it's the last surviving virus of a distant planet with a red sun, energised by our awesome yellow sun. Making matters worse, some Infected are, as mentioned previously, Special. The Boomer is a big fat fellow who sprays bile everyplace, which temporarily blinds its' unlucky recipients and draws zombies like poo draws Germans. The Hunter, a little junkie looking fellow, can make incredible pounces to land on survivors and maul them. The Smoker has an unfeasibly long tongue, with which he can snare and drag people. The Tank, who appears only rarely, is extremely strong, super tough, punches like a freight train and can propel everything from cars to pallet jacks at his prospective victims. Last, and probably least, is the Witch, who does nothing but sit and sob until you annoy her, whereupon she chases you down and eviscerates you. And that's it. That's the plot. You at A, you need be Z, zombies in way, good luck.

But hey, this isn't a story focused game, so we don't need no steenking plot. It's all about the GAAAAAMEPLAAAY, man, so gameplay discussion it is. You take the reins of one of four survivors, with either AI or other people taking control of the other 3. And here we hit the first major problem, because if the AI takes over the puny humans, you're in for a frustrating and unpredictable ride. The Survivor AI in this game is Crazy with a capital "Ker". It can shoot with laser precision, picking zombies off through minor gaps in scenery with any weapon you care to mention. And that is all it has under "PROS". Under "CONS" are such bizarre behaviours as wandering off alone to get mauled, ignoring team mates who're currently being mauled to heal minor booboos on itself, dropping Molotovs onto its fellow man, stopping you in the middle of a gunfight to apply bandages to you ("That bruise on your forearm! Oh crap, you're at 98/100hp! Put down that shotgun, it's time to heal!") and, maybe one game in five hundred, opening fire on you with an assault rifle before you even leave spawn. And when it isn't acting weird, it moves with the slow and frustrating pace of your grandpa with a pantload and it LOOOVES to take the longest possible route. All in all, teeth-grinding stuff.

But hey, this is no more a single player focused game than it is a story focused game, so we don't need no steenking plot. It's all about MULTIPLAAAAAYEEERR. So grab three friends or three strangers, and get ready to go, Ghost Rider. Uh oh, problem number two! You see, there are four Campaigns in the game, each split into five sub-chapters. A chapter, assuming all four of you are playing it for the first time, will take you around an hour and a half. Once you get the maps down pat, you can take the game on on its hardest difficulty without much, aha, difficulty. You see, the AI for the Infected isn't much brighter than the AI for the Survivors, and it rarely puts up a fight worth mentioning. The only thing really standing in your way is the stupidity of your flesh-and-blood team mates. Oh boy, are they ever dumb. I can't really blame Valve, much as I'd like to, but this game seems to attract the dumbest of the dumb. A game which essentially boils down to "WALK FORWARD DON'T SPLIT UP SHOOT ZOMBIES SAVE HUMANS" is far too complex for pimply young adults who have every episode of Naruto memorised and can assemble complex electrical apparatuses from components. This is despite the thousand upon billions of dollars, man-hours and computer hours spent collating data and making the game so insanely simple and intuitive that your grandmother could pick it up and gun down some zombies, if she was that way inclined. The sheer idiocy of the L4D playing populace means you'll either breeze through a campaign with no difficulty, or die damn near instantly while a 12 year old French boy shouts "'ALLO?" over the microphone non-stop. Oh, and if someone joins to take over a formerly AI controlled Survivor, said Survivor will stand, completely frozen, until the person's loaded. Ain't that wonderful?

So hey, campaign's only challenge is corralling your fellow man, let's go into the other half of the game...Versus Mode. In this, the role of the Special Infected is taken over by a team of 4 players as well, each being assigned a random Special Infected (Smoker, Hunter, Boomer and only very rarely Tank, with the Witch remaining AI controlled) and, in theory, providing infinite levels of variety and challenge. You thought the Hunter was spooky before, wait until it sprays "U GOT PWNT" on your corpse and teabags it! Hours of varied fun...or not. You see, in Versus, you get a choice of 2 different campaigns. 2 out of the 4. You get a choice of No Mercy, which everyone plays to death at first anyway because it's the easiest or Blood Harvest, which is set in the countryside and is insanely boring. And, as I mentioned, the maps are incredibly linear. And so, people being people, and Valve being Valve, the game basically degenerates into a battle of the exploits. You see, Valve, in their infinite wisdom, decided melee should be in the game, and so right click produces a mighty melee swing of your gun, knocking back and killing zombies, knocking Special Infected off of your fellow man and, hilariously, doing no damage to your fellow survivor. A pellet of buckshot in the back hurts, but a Vietnam vet swinging an Uzi into your skull with killing force is harmless. Which means any boulder, stalled car or cupboard can instantly be turned into an impregnable fortress, with four survivors crouching in it and flailing wildly forever. Since you only have 2 campaigns and the community's such a fractured mix of skilled and insanely useless, the game will either be a one-sided beatdown because one team has buffoons/someone loads in the middle of a fight, or it'll be a nauseatingly frustrating battle of exploits, with the Survivors ability to form into a melee-flailing Voltron wherever they can put their back to a wall being pitted against the Boomer's ability to clip you into ladders and alcoves using his death explosion. And then, once the Survivors melee-spam their way to the end of the level you swap sides, with the Infected players taking control of Survivors, and vice-versa. But oh snap, whoever played Infected first now knows if and where the Tank and Witch will spawn, and can plan accordingly! Oh what fun! Valve no doubt have plans to patch this but, being Valve, it'll take them about nine months.

So, that about wraps it up. If you're reading this around about the year 2009, I wouldn't recommend this game, but you'll buy it anyway because you're a nerd and totally think you'd cut the mustard in a zombiefest. If, however, you're reading this in the year 2061, then Valve may very well have patched some actual content in and all the exploits out, so it could very well be worth 60 space credits or one eighth share of a hovercar or whatever you future people use for money. Who can say? Not me, I just write long and rambling rants about videogames on the Internet.

Rating:   2.0 - Poor

Product Release: Left 4 Dead (EU, 11/18/08)

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