Funny I should post a story about Gears of War 2 multiplayer the same day as the Left 4 Dead multiplayer event. Horde mode didn't colour my impressions of Left 4 Dead versus mode, but the comparison was definitely floating around in the back of my mind.
The basic differences are obvious - in Horde, it's all about strategy. Get to a point on a map and hold the position as wave after wave of increasingly smart/well-armed Locusts come at you. In Left 4 Dead, the versus mode is a combination of hide and
seek kill (for Infected) and run and gun (for Survivors). The scoring is different, the objectives are different - and ultimately, there's something profoundly different about blowing sinister, ugly aliens to bits versus blowing to bits something that visibly used to be human. It's upsetting instead of empowering.
Other, less-obvious differences are the fact the difficulty in Left 4 Dead versus mode ramps up in terms of level design, rather than making the Infected burlier or the Survivors weaker. So, for example, a multiplayer match with a high difficulty will put you in a level with very few ammo caches and a whole lot more hiding places for Infected to lurk. Also - you don't get to play Locusts in Gears of War 2.
I started off my stint with Left 4 Dead on the Infected team. We appeared in the same safe room as the Survivors in ghost form and had to move through the map to find a spawn point. The idea was to pick a place where we could either jump out and attack the Survivors (i.e. a dark closet, a crawl space or a stairwell). Each Infected can choose a totally different spot from one another - and if you happen to pick a lousy place, don't sweat it. You'll get to pick another spawn point all over again when you die (which you will - because
zombies Infected are made for killing).
After picking a place to spawn in, each Infected became a specific type of Infected - a Boomer, a Smoker or a Hunter. As an Infected, I could see outlines of both my teammates and of the Survivors at all times - which helped me pick out my spawn point.
Each type of Infected has a special primary attack: the Boomer puke a substance that attracts hordes of NPC Infected to whoever gets barfed on; the Smoker has this wicked-long tong that can snare and choke a Survivor; and the Hunter can pounce and maul all in one long-range motion. There's also the Tank Infected - sort of a cave troll - but this type only spawns in randomly after an Infected player has died a few times. If you're the lucky bastard who gets to play as a Tank, you suddenly have a huge health gauge, the ability to fling dumpsters a la The Hulk, and a requirement to keep damaging Survivors (or else you lose your Tank spawn and go back to being a Hunter or whatever). Also, there's a Witch Infected - but she counts as an NPC and I never ran into her the whole time I was playing, so I've got no idea what she does.
As a Boomer, I moved way slower than my teammates; so I decided to hide in a closet and wait for the Survivors to drop down from a hole in the ceiling. The levels are spread out with a critical path that the Survivors need to navigate to get to the next safe room (in which case I guess they win - nobody ever made it that far), so you can be reasonably sure that wherever you hide, the Survivors are heading right for you - or they'll wind up going past you in which case you can jump them from behind.
A bunch of NPC Infected was lurching around below the hole in the ceiling. The Survivors tentatively edged up to the hole and shot downwards into the pack, thinning it out enough to create a false sense of security. When the first one jumped down, I lurched out of my hiding place, spewing green vomit. I think I missed with my initial attack, which forced me to default to the melee attack - but one of the Survivors blew me to pieces with a shotgun blast from above.
Luckily, I exploded vomit when I died, coating my intended target with a green goo that 1) obscures that player's vision and 2) brought down the wrath of like 20 NPC Infected that wiped out half the Survivor team. Boomers don't always explode this way when they die; I'm not sure what triggered my massive gore-splosion. I noticed the Smoker seemed to always leave a huge cloud of smoke when he got killed and the Hunter didn't do anything special at all.
When an Infected player dies, about 30 seconds pass before you reappear as a ghost in the same location as the Survivors and then have to troll the map to find a new spawn point (most of the time you can't go back to your old point because the Survivors have moved far enough through the level that there'd be no point in backtracking). When you click the right trigger to get back into the game, there's a random chance you'll spawn in as a Tank - but mostly, you stay the same type of Infected the whole time.
The match ends when all of the Survivors have been killed (they don't respawn like Infected), whereupon (I love that word) the teams switch sides and suddenly I found myself playing as Zoey, in the safe room with no special Infected sight to tell me where the bad guys might be. I could still see my teammates in outlines, though - which came in handy if we got separated and someone went down somewhere.
A big part of Left 4 Dead is team survival. You've got to be on hand to heal your buddies almost all the time or you're never going to make it through even one chapter of a level (and each level has five chapters). This creates a sense of urgency and vague panic whenever you realise you've been left alone in a dark hallway and a Smoker snares you with his choking tongue. You can wiggle the analogue sticks all you like - unless someone shoots him off you, you're utterly fucked.
Generally, the Survivors have pretty sturdy health gauges (which is good, because I'm trigger-happy and friendly fire happens often whenever I'm around). I got pounced by a Hunter three times in a row, getting pinned beneath him while he mauled me for a good five seconds without a rescue at least once, and still managed to come out with a little over 20 HP. Unfortunately, the fourth time I went down, I was incapacitated against a wall - so I couldn't get up even though the Hunter attacking me had been shot off of me by a teammate. To make matters worse, there was a Tank between me and the nearest guy who could revive me.
I was still able to contribute to the fight by shooting blindly from the downed position (even got an Achievement for it) - but after being incapacitated for too long (and getting my head stomped on a little bit by the Tank), I died and had to watch my teammates fight on via an action camera that followed their progress.
Again, when the Survivors died off, we changed sides and I got to try out the Smoker's tongue-lashing attack (which I started to think of as a Gene Simmons special). I was told that for as many Tanks as one side had spawned during a match, the other side had exactly the same amount of Tanks when they took their turn playing as Infected - though they didn't always show up at the same part of the game. I was hoping I'd get to try being one if I died often enough (and believe me, I tried) - but it never happened for me.
Ultimately my team won, despite my repeated and semi-deliberate deaths as an Infected. A PR rep was kind enough to clue me in to how the scoring works: you only earn points while playing as Survivors by getting as far as you can through a level. As Infected, you are racking up points - but they don't go to your final score and mostly get used as a way to measure your performance against your teammates'. To win a game of versus, you've got to make it through the entire campaign (a series of levels - I wasn't clear on how many) with the high est score.
The highlight of my evening? Accidentally shooting at one of my teammates, missing and hitting the gas station behind him that then suddenly exploded. Which killed him. Oops (sorry Randy!).
Left 4 Dead is out November 18.
And if that seems waaay too long to wait, we've got these pics to tied you over.