There's nothing quite as terrifying as hordes of hungry, screaming, mindless undead, roaming the streets in search of human flesh. Survival horror has known this for ages, yet most have failed to realise the key to truly horrifying zombie movies - togetherness. True zombie horror is taken from the way groups of humans deal with desperate situations, rather than the monsters themselves.
Valve's new co-op intensive shooter Left 4 Dead aims to capture the more human side of zombie horror, pitting a team of four disparate survivors against the hordes of the damned, which is nearly as frightening as a lone game facing off against an assemblage of video game critics. Turn the corner slowly...
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For good or ill, this is not a game that challenges your gaming skill. Rather, it's a title that plops you into the scariest parts of your favourite zombie/horror flick - think 28 Days Later meets Army of Darkness - and never lets go. As such, players will go through the entirety of the game guns-a-blazin' and on the edge of their seats. This is definitely one of the most exhilarating and heart-pounding experiences I've had in video games, though somewhat hollow and empty in retrospect.
You'll travel through urban, suburban, and rural areas, each one grim, desolate, and littered with evidence of the apocalyptic event. You never learn exactly what happened, but the rich environments and thoughtful graffiti set the stage expertly. One campaign on normal difficulty (the second of four tiers) takes about an hour to complete, so you'll soon become familiar with each set of maps. Although the limited selection and grim, overcast colour palette can sometimes feel a bit repetitious, the dynamic enemies, varying weapon and ammo spawns, and ever-changing human factor combine to make each play-through feel surprisingly unique.
Normally, the giggling distraction of co-op promptly shatters whatever atmosphere developers had intended, but somehow Valve inveigles four players into the horror of its setting. It's a pretty nerve-jangling scrimmage; rare is the game in which, shrill with panic, you find yourself shouting into the microphone: "Oh, Christ! It's a Witch! It's a Witch!" Valve has achieved this through its usual understated storytelling genius - taking something unscripted and dynamic, and seeding it with the right amount of narrative flavour, pacing and spectacle to make it feel like you are participating in an orchestrated horror set-piece.
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I've neglected to talk about single player, which the game lists as the third option on its title screen. There is no story to soak in, and sadly, it's just not the same game without buddies at your side. If anything, this mode is worth a look just to witness Valve's amazing teammate AI. They are almost too good, often shooting a little too quickly and taking down elite zombies before you see them (which sucks for multiplayer matches without eight players). The split-screen co-op is fun, but results in a drop in graphical fidelity.
Left 4 Dead presents the zombie apocalypse the way we always hoped it would be: filled with non-stop tension and continuous carnage. Still, in your first match or two, you might be tempted to shrug off Left 4 Dead as too simple -- "I get it, zombies." But like the similarly "basic" Counter- Strike or Halo multiplayer, the strategies start to unfold. Where can you flank? Should you risk sending a scout ahead? Should you let the A.I. zombies take the lead? How can you use the terrain to your advantage? What if we work together here? The more you play, the deeper the experience gets, and the more satisfyingly strategic your play becomes.
I've already logged about sixteen hours with Left 4 Dead on the Xbox 360, a figure I expect to be but a tiny fraction of my total play time. I'm addicted. It's rare that I enjoy a game this much from the get-go. This is a brilliant, tightly executed shooter that feels fresh and exciting. It may be a little light on content, but it has easily supplanted my other online multiplayer gaming choices as the title that will soak up the majority of my free time. Anyone looking for a different -- but not too different -- take on the first-person shooter genre can't go wrong with Left 4 Dead.
As if having your life in the hands of other Xbox Live players wasn't scary enough...